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Henry Quicke Love Letters to Earth


Priestess and anthropologist, 1

Bag People, 5
Dancers, 10
The Mystery of the Spectacular Ending to the Story of the World, 14 Instructions for Creating the Earth, 18
The Reason the World has Ended, 22
The Afterlife, 26

Priestess and anthropologist , 32
Swakes, 37
War, 42
Weather, 47
Wind, 53
Streams of Conscience, 58
For Love, 62

Priestess and anthropologist , 68
Fishing for Lost Souls, 73
The Two Sighs of God, 79
The Town Fool, 83
A Great Victory, 89
The People Who Retreat from Themselves, 94
Actors, 102

Priestess and anthropologist, 109


A pair of tattooed warriors grips the anthropologist’s arms and leads him up a
hillock to a small round hut. Inside, the priestess, nude as always, shifts her raised knee
to keep her hammock swaying.
“Leave him,” she says. The warriors release their grips. One of them throws the
anthropologist’s frayed and bulky backpack to the dirt.
“Why the rough treatment?” The anthropologist has been here for months and
speaks her language fluently.
“You’ve learned too much,” says the priestess. “We’re going to have to kill
“I don’t understand. You gave me permission to stay as long as I liked.”
She shrugs one shoulder, a habit of hers. “Now you can stay even longer.”
Hers is the only naked body that has not lost its effect on him. “I’ve been
planning to write all good things about your people,” he says, “if that’s what you’re
worried about.”
“All lies,” she says. “We’ve been putting on a show for you.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“We know the most child-like tribes get all the government benefits.” She clucks
her tongue. “Believe me or not as you wish. You’ll be killed either way.” She opens her
hand and invites him to pull up a mat. “Don’t worry, you have until the rain stops,” she
says. The anthropologist looks over his shoulder. The warriors are gone and, she’s
right, it’s raining again, one of those light-switch rains that could quit just as quickly. “That’s one of our customs,” she adds. “Don’t you have that scratched into your
big black notebook somewhere?”
“Execution rituals. I must have missed that one.”
“I don’t know how. You scratch all day long in your ugly notebook, and for
“It’s my job.”
“That notebook! How old is it? Why don’t you ever make a new one? Why don’t
you at least paint something on the cover? It’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen an
anthropologist carry, and that’s saying a lot.”
“I’m not really an anthropologist,” he confesses. “I’ve lapsed. I don’t study. I
don’t write papers anyone will read.”
“Then what do you do?”
It’s a question he’s been avoiding. “I travel and observe…I’m collecting my
“Into what?”
He’s not sure how to respond.
“If I find a pile of your thoughts lying around, I will carry it out to the shitting
place before someone steps in it.”
He starts to laugh, then remembers she’s about to have him killed.
He folds his arms. She taps the edge of the hammock
He stares through the doorless entry. It’s pouring now. The rain cascades
through the rain forest’s leaves, overfilling those like cupped palms, spattering those like
spatulas. The puddles swell and join hands, climbing toward the hut. His legs are tired and a little wobbly from nerves. He decides to take a mat after
all. He sits at an awkward distance from the priestess, near the entry. For a while, they
observe each other out of the corners of their eyes.
The priestess pushes her toes against the hammock cords to get it moving again.
The anthropologist puts his forearms on his knees and lets his head sink. He rubs the
back of his stiff neck.
His back hurts, too. After all his travels, his endless observations, he wishes he
had a comfortable chair for what now appears to be his last hours on earth. He’s owed
that, at least, isn’t he?
He raises his head. “Isn’t it also a custom to allow the condemned to live like
kings, to bring them food and drink and women, or whatever?”
“You must have us confused with some other people,” she says.
“So you expect me just to sit here quietly?”
“I never said you had to be quiet.”
“Maybe I’ll run.”
“If our warriors don’t catch you, the jaguars will. You needed three guides just
to find us, remember.”
Outside, the rain hastens the dusk. After years of moving on, taking leave at the
first sign of entanglement, his worst fear has at last been realized. He’s overstayed his
“It is raining,” says the priestess. “Soon you’ll be dead. Now would be a good
time to show me what’s in your very ugly notebook.”
The idea angers him at first. He doesn’t deserve a death sentence for notetaking. So why should he entertain his killer? After a few minutes of silence he reconsiders.
She’s right: he’s going to die soon. Why harbor a grudge? He doesn’t want to spend his
final hours in boredom.
Still, he waits long enough for the silence to register his complaint.
It is dark now, and the rain falls steadily. The anthropologist takes a deep breath
and lets it out slowly. He unzips his backpack and pulls out his ugly notebook. There’s a
small flashlight in there, too. He has sealed it with duct tape and used it sparingly. It
still works.
He opens the notebook and clears his throat.


Bag People


There was a time when the Jooga tribe were notorious collectors. They took


everything they could get their hands on, whether natural or man-made, and put it into


piles. They even raided the villages of neighboring tribes, harming no one but stealing


everything that interested them and some things that didn’t, simply to add to their


collections. To outsiders, their village looked like a garbage dump, piles surrounding their


huts, some taller than the huts, some on the huts, some in the village commons, others


stretching out well beyond the boundaries of the village, strangling trees and providing


homes for some animals, playgrounds for others.


At first, the Joogas had a system of classification that allowed them to put like


items in like piles. Spear-shaped objects went in one pile, egg-shaped objects in another.


Flexible objects in one pile, brittle objects in another. Daytime objects in one pile,


nighttime objects in another. When an object fell into more than one category, the


village’s Collector-in-Chief would weigh the factors and make the call. The system


worked for centuries, until the nearby river became the bearer of a new variety of objects


that seemed impossible to classify. The Joogas found floating down the river and


amassing on its banks objects which appeared egg-shaped when first discovered, but could become spear-shaped simply by pulling on the ends. Then there were objects that seemed


both flexible and brittle depending on the direction you tried to bend them and on other


factors, like the weather. There were also many objects that could be used in both


daytime and nighttime, and some that seemed useful at no time. Such objects caused a


breakdown in the classification system, and the piles, once neat and orderly, became


chaotic and cluttered, and the sheer numbers of items found floating in the river threatened


to overwhelm the village.


Then one day it began raining, so hard that the Joogas were driven into their huts,


where they watched out their doorways as their treasured piles collapsed in the downpour.


The storm continued for days, and soon the banks of the river overflowed, and the Joogas


were forced to climb into trees like monkeys just to prevent themselves from being swept


away. When the flood surged through the village, all the collections of the Joogas were


washed away, as were their huts, leaving them with nothing. Finally, as the waters began


to recede and the rain began to slow, the heavens provided them with the greatest object


yet invented, an object so useful and well-suited to the Joogas, it had to come directly


from the gods. The rain turned from water into bags, and the whole sky was suddenly


checkered with falling bags. Some of the bags caught their handles on the branches of the


trees and hung there like new fruit, while others turned upside down and landed on the


heads of the frightened Joogas. When the rains, and the bags, finally stopped falling, the


Joogas climbed down from the trees (some with bags still on their heads, afraid to touch


them), sank their feet into the muddy ground, and wept at the loss of their cherished




The Collector-in-Chief called a meeting, to which he requested that everyone bring one of the bags that had been given to them by the gods. The bags were large, made of


plain beige cloth, with egg-shaped wooden handles that opened wide.


“The gods have sent us both a message and a gift,” said the Collector-in-Chief.


“The message is that our collections had become too heavy and threatened to break the


back of the earth, so the gods decided to wash them away. To replace our collections, the


gods have sent us the gift of these new containers, which are objects from their own


collections. ‘May we suggest you try these?’ the gods are saying, and as usual we will


follow the good suggestions of the gods.”


Thus it was decreed that from now on each person’s entire collection must never


exceed the dimensions of his bag.


Almost overnight, the Jooga culture changed dramatically. They rebuilt their


village and lived as before, but now they were much choosier about the items they


collected, knowing that only so much could fit in one bag. Their lives felt lighter and


more concise, and their collections sometimes surprised them with meanings that would


have been smothered in the era of great piles.


The Joogas still raid villages, but now they take very little, and if they take more


than they can fit in their bags, they return what they don’t use.


“I won’t be needing this,” a Jooga will say, handing a stolen cup back to its owner.


“Oh, so it’s not good enough for you?” the owner will say knowingly.


Almost every Jooga’s bag is full, even at an early age, so that an addition to its


contents also means a subtraction of something already bagged. The young Jooga’s bag is


often full of flashy items plucked from the river, while an older Jooga replaces such items


with subtler ones, more personally and less conventionally meaningful. Household items used daily--cooking utensils, clothing, personal grooming items-


are exempted from the bag’s contents. All else is part of the collection. When a Jooga


obtains a new and interesting item, he may carry that item around the village for a day or


two, showing it to everyone he meets. At night, though, it must be returned to the bag,


which is kept in a corner of its owner’s hut.


The entire collection is brought out only for special occasions, such as the


beginning of a new friendship or marriage. When two Joogas strike up a conversation for


the first time, one will suggest an oog, a meeting in which two people display the contents


of their bags to each other. Sometimes old friends will renew their friendship with an oog,




At an oog, two or more Joogas will take turns pulling out items from their bags.


The owner will describe each item, where and when it was found, what it might be used


for, and will then tell any stories connected with it, which are often embellished to make


the item more meaningful and important.


“This is a nut that fell on my head when I was a boy,” said one Jooga man, twisting


the nut between his fingers and weighing it in his hand.


The man’s wife, a woman well known for the beautiful black beads she’d worn


around her neck, had recently died, and his friends had suggested an oog to help him


overcome his grieving.


“I was walking in the place where the parrots feed,” said the man, “and it was the


first time I was allowed to walk in the trees alone. The nut frightened me and left a bump


on my head for many days. When I picked the nut off the ground, I looked to see who


had dropped it. There was a parrot high in the tree above me, looking down at me, first with one eye and then the other. ‘I suppose you want this back,’ I said to the parrot. ‘I


found it first,’ replied the parrot. ‘But when you dropped it on my head, it became mine,’


I said, ‘so go find another.’ ‘I’ll scratch your eyes out,’ said the parrot. ‘You’ll have to


catch me first, stupid parrot,’ I said and then ran swiftly back to the village and put the nut


in my bag, swapping out the eye of a fish I had recently found on the river bank.”


“No wonder the parrots don’t like you,” joked another Jooga. “Word gets




“That doesn’t bother me,” said the first man, now pulling out a mummified parrot,


the next item in his bag.


The others laughed, until they noticed that the parrot’s eyes had been replaced


with two of the softly glowing black beads that had once rested snugly in the hollow of his


beautiful wife’s neck.


They said nothing, out of respect for this mystery, and then they looked away,


searching their own bags for a story to tell. Dancers


It is said that the Lakas are natural dancers because when they walk from hut to


hut or village to village they must spin, shuffle, and slide over treacherous, cliff-hugging


paths and the knife-sharp rocks that stipple their jagged island. So rarely do the Lakas


encounter flat earth that when they do their knees bow and their feet roll over onto their


ankles and their torsos sway and totter until they finally collapse to the dirt and struggle


for hours to regain their feet, like turtles flipped on their backs. The skips and twists in


the Lakas’ walk form a kind of dance, and one they must learn early or else risk tumbling


down spiked hillsides into the gnashing surf. But that is only part of it. For the Lakas, life


itself is a dance, one to be shaped and practiced until it achieves a form so marvelous and


real it will survive its dancer.


Every important event in a Laka’s life gets expressed in a common language of


dance steps. Because of this, a Laka may recall his entire life by joining these steps into


one continuous life-dance. The dance embodies the history and personality of its dancer,


so much so that Lakas make no real distinction between a person and his dance. If several


Lakas long for the company of an absent friend, they may elect someone to perform part


of their friend’s life dance. Then, magically, the performer seems transformed into the friend. This ceremony brings comfort to the families and friends of loved ones on long


journeys and those who’ve passed away. It brings back ancestors for the delight of


descendants who never knew them and raises long-dead chiefs, whose dance steps still


edify and inspire.


A Laka’s dancing life begins when its first step is recorded in front of the entire


village. The child’s father holds its arms while music is played, speeches are made, and


fires burn at the cardinal points, the shadows creating new geometries on the rocky earth.


Finally, haltingly, the child lifts a knee and steps into a life of dance.


“Let the dance begin!” shouts the village chief.


“And let the dance be named Rakbu!” shout the child’s parents, announcing for the


first time the name of their child--and his dance.


As the child grows older, his life-dance grows longer and more complex. When he


travels, he will add movements to recount each of the islands and peoples he visits. When


he marries, a great ceremony will be held in which bride and groom adopt one dance step


from each other’s life dance, the more sentimental couples choosing each other’s first step


to signify a new beginning. If the child is foolish enough to grow into a criminal, his


crimes, too, will be recorded in the life dance. And the dance steps for crimes are not ones


that any dancer would choose to perform: the dance step for stealing is to spank yourself


repeatedly on the bare buttocks, and the dance step for adultery is to lie across jagged


rocks while others walk over your back.


When a Laka dies, his life dance is performed by friends and relatives in a funeral


ceremony that can take hours, with mourners bursting into tears as the dance recalls for


them the poignant moments of the deceased’s life, though the mourners take solace in knowing that the deceased’s life dance lives on, and that a Laka is never really dead until


his life dance is forgotten, which may take several generations or more, depending on the


respect and affection he generated and the skill with which he danced.


This is the reason the Lakas are such perfectionists. If they wish their dance to


survive them, they must make it memorable, and a memorable dance must have both


interesting choreography and skillful dancing.


The choreography of every Laka’s dance is determined solely by the important


events in his life. For this reason, the Lakas often seem to base their life decisions purely


on the dance steps that follow. They’ll visit a certain island just to add that island’s dance


step to their own dance. They’ll build a new hut just to add the building-a-hut step to


their dance. They have even been known to trip and fall on purpose, breaking an arm just


to add the wrist-swinging, thigh-slapping motion of an arm-break to their dance. When


spouses fight, they accuse each other of marrying solely to steal their dance step.


This is how the Lakas give shape to their lives and why, for them, every life event


is experienced not just for its own sake but also for the sake of its effect on their dance.


Some would say that the Lakas’ real living takes place only when they dance, so that for


them life and art are reversed, and living is worthwhile mainly for the life it brings to art.


But perhaps this is the price they pay to fulfill their deepest desire: that upon their deaths


they will have shaped their lives into a dance so inspiring and beautiful that future


generations will long to dance in their steps, bringing them back to life, leap by leap,


shuffle by shuffle. The Mystery of the Spectacular Ending to the Story of the World


The Ahala believe that before the earth was created, all of the gods gathered


around the great campfire for a feast, and Agwan, the god of contests, suggested that they


celebrate the plentiful feast with a storytelling competition. Agwan began, and each god


in the circle of gods took a turn telling an astonishing and infinitely complex tale, far


beyond human comprehension. When all of the stories were told, a heated discussion


arose which lasted perhaps thousands of years in human time, but which was of course


very brief in the life of a god. Finally, and by the narrowest of margins, it was resolved


that the story of the goddess Ma’hal, the silver-tongued goddess of words, was the most


interesting, particularly because of its spectacular ending. Thus it is that Ma’hal’s story


became the story of the earth, of all that has happened since the beginning and all that is to


come, including the spectacular ending that is far more interesting and exciting than


anything humans could ever imagine.


There was one god who refused to accept the results. La’nat, the goddess of


mystification, had come in a close second. Her story, she claimed, was more spectacular


in every respect but the ending, and she could have invented a more spectacular ending, but that would only have detracted from the mysterious spectacle of the rest of the story.


The other gods laughed at La’nat, refusing to hear her out. Unappreciated and angry,


La’nat vowed to disrupt the story of Ma’hal in every way possible.


This is why, say the Ahala, things don’t always go as planned, and why people


sometimes get confused, and why people sometimes say one thing and do another. La’nat


is at work. An exasperated Ahala will tell you, when you don’t understand what he has


asked you to do, “You’ve been kissed by La’nat!” And then he’ll knock on your skull.


Despite the steady stream of curses hurled at La’nat, the Ahala are secretly


thankful for her. They know that were it not for La’nat, they’d have no will of their own


and would speak and act only to play out the prize-winning story already told by Ma’hal.


Of course, the important features of Ma’hal’s plot are too sound to be corrupted; it’s on


the smaller details and the lesser events that La’nat works her mischief, so that the minor


characters in the story take on lives of their own, and many of the day’s decisions fall into


the hands of humans, who are fair enough storytellers but lack the sweeping vision and the


good judgment of the gods and so are likely to foul things up--only in small ways, but


enough to bring a wry smile to La’nat’s lips.


To honor the gods, the Ahala recreate their competition with storytelling


competitions of their own at the village’s weekly campfire. A good story there doesn’t


make you a god, but it can win you a new and colorful set of evening wear. Then you’ll


be the toast of the village for many days, with many people admiring your new clothes and


praising your storytelling abilities.


Occasionally, an Ahala will tell a story out of revenge. If a man feels he has been


wronged by another, he may invent a story that makes fun of the other. Then, when the story is told around the evening fire, the offender will be forced to buy the story so it is


not told again. For this reason, too, the best storytellers are also the best treated. You


wouldn’t want to offend someone whose revenge story might be so compelling that others


would want to hear it again and again; the price will rise accordingly and you’ll end up


paying dearly for your transgression.


What is the spectacular ending to Ma’hal’s story? This is a favorite speculation of


the Ahala, even though they know it is beyond their wildest imaginations. Some say the


entire world will crumble apart and float up like sparks from the gods’ campfire. Others


say that when the gods grow tired they will simply stomp out the story and go to bed,


which is a spectacular enough ending for weary gods. Some say Ma’hal’s story is really a


revenge story against La’nat, and this explains La’nat’s anger and her desire to steal the


story away from Ma’hal. But Ma’hal, in her wisdom, has accounted for that: knowing


that La’nat really is the better creator of spectacular endings, Ma’hal has a plan. She will


allow La’nat to disrupt the story so thoroughly that she finally rests control of it and


smashes it to bits in some wild, mysterious fashion, thus ensuring the spectacular and in


that case rather ironic nature of the world’s end.


Such a story, so full of intrigue and high drama, say the Ahala, would certainly


want to be heard again and again.


They hope the gods agree. Instructions for Creating the Earth


The Lur believe that God created the earth from instructions He found written into


a rock. Then, once He’d finished creating, He stood on the shore of the ocean, which


He’d created, and languished indulgently in the sun, which He’d created, too, from the


instructions. Unsure of what to do next, He picked up the instruction rock, weighed it in


His hand, yawned once or twice, then skipped the rock across the surface of the ocean.


God was strong, especially then, in His youth, and the rock skipped with colossal force off


the lip of a breaking swell, up through the sky, which He’d also created, past the sun to a


height beyond even His reach. Though He didn’t create the rock, He was pleased with


how pretty it looked in the sky, hanging softly and pale above the ragged waves and the


sapphire glow of the world, and He told himself that only He could have had the good


luck to be the cause of this. And God smiled.


In time, God would regret his casual rock toss. He had underestimated the


persistence of another of His creations, the Lur, who with each generation grew smarter


and smarter and understood more and more of their creator’s ways, His carelessness, His


indifference, and, especially, His jealousy. The Lur know that the earth revolves around a


giant rock that we call the moon, and that on one side of the moon are those written instructions for creating the world. Because God is a jealous God, He holds His hand


between the moon and sun to shadow the instructions from the Lur, whom He thinks are


too smart for their own good and want to steal His strength. Unfortunately, this occupies


much of God’s time and energy and allows for the world to run amok with wars, disease,


death, and terrible storms.


“Can you blame Him?” ask some of the Lur in God’s defense. “Where would God


be if everyone knew how to create the earth? Even He didn’t know until He found the




Others laugh openly at God’s pettiness. “Does He really think we’ll understand


the language of the instructions? Does He really think we’ll replace Him?”


“But what if we can read the instructions,” respond God’s defenders. “Think of


the consequences, everyone trying to be God, everyone trying to re-create the world.


What kind of half-baked world could people like us create?”


Still, the majority of the Lur believe they could do better. When something bad


happens, they mumble under their breaths: “If I just knew the instructions….” And they


sigh, shaking their heads.


The Lur live in caves along a rocky, desolate coast. Between roaring sets of


waves, they dash through tidal pools gathering oysters and battered fish. They keep time


on a lunar schedule, waking at moonrise and bedding down at moonset no matter how


bright the sun outside their caves. For the Lur, the moon has a sense of mystery about it


because it is the only thing not created by God. Who made the rock? Who wrote the


instructions? This, they say, is the Great Mystery, from which all other mysteries spring.


Any unexplained event, mysterious object, extraordinary behavior, or unanswerable question is attributed to the power of the inscribed moon. And the Lur hold that power to


be even greater than God’s. Why else would He expend so much effort to hide it from




On days when the moon is full, the Lur spend their time drinking and dancing and


feasting, knowing no harm can come to them because, with the instructions facing away,


God has both hands free to attend the world. On the other hand, during a new moon,


when the instructions would be fully exposed but for God’s jealous hands and when the


powers of the Great Mystery are at their height, strange things happen. The Lur huddle in


groups up and down the beach, heard but not seen in the new moon’s darkness, their


whispered voices anxious, tentative, swirling in the wind and then swept aside by the


exhales of breakers upon the shore. Arguments break out as friends turn against friends,


children against parents, and parents against each other. Someone coughs: the healthy


grow sick, and the sick get sicker. People who are ordinarily lighthearted sag with sorrow


and speak only of the senselessness and absurdity of life. The boldest and bravest quake


with fear at the glance of a curious seagull.


At such times, only the Lur’s vigilance holds them together, the slimmest thread of


hope that an aging God will nod off and let His hand fall from the sky. The Lur are


prepared. Two at a time, they keep watch in shifts. The watchers lie on the beach, their


faces to the dim aura of the new moon and their hands at the ready with treated bark and a


writing stick freshly dipped in warm fishblood. Should the instructions be exposed, the


two watchers will copy what they see onto the bark, one from the top down, the other


from the bottom up, hoping to get what they need before God stirs from His catnap and


sees what He’s done. Even with the new moon about to set and the watchers’ eyelids growing heavy,


wrists aching from holding their writing sticks, the Lur cannot afford to slacken their


vigilance. At any moment, a terrible storm could claw them into the sea, or a neighboring


tribe could slaughter their children to appease a strange god, or an unknown disease could


arrive on a gust of wind, or the mystery of a life without instructions could rob them all of


the will to live. The Lur know that the only remedy for these things is written on the face


of the moon, hidden from view, with only a dreamer’s chance of revelation. The Reason the World Has Ended


If it’s true that the Shalazh are the most melancholy people in the world, that’s


only because they believe the world has already come to an end. A Shalazh will stand on a


dry mound, surveying the badlands and the perpetual gray skies that surround them, and


will imagine what the world was like before it ended, the tall green plants that dripped


with sweet nectar, the shafts of sunlight spoking through the trees like music, the cool


rains that made you laugh with joy, the charming curiosity of certain extinct animals.


The worst part is that the Shalazh can find no explanation for it. Not that they


don’t try. The tribal elders periodically debate the causes of the world’s end until a


consensus is reached. That consensus becomes the official explanation, the one a Shalazh


will give to a stranger who poses the question in public. “The world was destroyed by an


unsupervised child who dropped it on a stake,” a Shalazh will say. If you ask him again


the next week, there’ll be a new explanation: “The world was rolled across a hard surface


by a finicky giant who disliked its irregularities.” But if a Shalazh invites you into his


home, he’ll tell you what he really thinks: “The elders are full of nonsense. Everyone


knows that the world ended because that’s what worlds do sometimes. The elders think


their explanations will make us feel better about the end of the world, but instead the explanations make us laugh at the elders.”


While it’s true that the elders do come up with some incredible explanations (“The


world was on the tip of an arrow that finally reached its target”), they believe they are


doing more than comforting their people. The elders believe that if they hit upon the


correct explanation, the world may be revived. They think that whoever is responsible for


the world’s demise may simply be playing a game, like a child who has hidden something


and wants you to guess where it is (“The world was taken from its nest and buried in the


desert, where it dried up and mummified before it could hatch”). Or it may be that this


certain Whoever wants the Shalazh to come to some understanding of its great power


(“The world was a brief happy thought in the mind of a dour God”). Or it may be that


there is no Whoever and the world ended because of some natural process (“The world


was crushed by the swelling weight of its overactive breeders”). If this latter is the case,


then perhaps the elders can find a way to reverse the process (by allowing no plant to


reach more than three feet, for instance, and no person to live past forty).


So far, none of the elders’ explanations has worked. Their world is just the same


as it has been for generations: barren, depressing, difficult. Since the world ended, the


Shalazh have been forced to eat rodents and roots--small, tasteless things that barely


survived the destruction.


The Shalazh dress in black, in mourning for the end of the world, and they speak in


hushed tones, as though they’re attending a funeral. Their dark eyes are moist with


sorrow, but most are too stoic to cry. They say that once the gates of sorrow are opened,


they’ll spend their whole lives crying for the lost earth, and what’s the point of that?


Instead, they gaze into the long distance and imagine for themselves what the earth was like. Then, when they gather in small groups, they entertain themselves by describing


the earth as it once was, the singing birds darting among the branches, the cold brooks


chattering over stones and smoothing them into disks, the black mud you could scoop up


and squeeze between your knuckles, the fragrant breeze that spoke the language of


flowers, the first taste of fruit on your tongue. In these conversations, the Shalazh take on


a changed aspect. Their moist eyes sparkle, they throw their heads back and laugh with


open mouths, they slap each other on the shoulder, their voices strong and clear and their


words quick, as if they are remembering the good times they’d once had with the


deceased. At some point, though, one of them will remember that the deceased will not


be returning, and a look will cross his face as though he now regrets all the breathless


pleasure he’d just allowed himself. The others in the group will see that look and feel


ashamed at their pleasure, too. The conversation will fall quiet, and soon the Shalazh will


go their separate ways to dig up roots or catch a field mouse for supper.


A splinter group of Shalazh have quietly ignored the explanations of the elders.


They are tired of explanations and want to abandon the false hope of bringing the world to


life again. They meet outside the village in a dried riverbed, and there they allow


themselves to cry openly for the dead earth. The elders are not unaware of these heretics.


Sometimes they stand on the bluffs above the dried riverbed and watch in silence as the


others sob, hands on knees, tears dripping off their faces.


The elders don’t discuss it, but each to a man wonders what will happen if the


heretics are allowed to continue. And each to a man imagines the heretics’ tears pooling


together on the dried riverbed, the pool beginning to flow, making chattering brooks, and


the brooks joining into wide rivers, and the rivers pouring into deep seas, and soon the earth springs to life again, the trees and plants shooting out of the mud, the birds darting


and chirping, and the sun finally showing its face again, its spokes of light piercing the


hearts of the Shalazh like Cupid’s arrows.


When will enough tears be shed to bring the world to life again?


That’s a question both elders and heretics wish to avoid. The Afterlife


The Umbas live in a chaotic and fertile rain forest, where contorted trees scuffle


toward the light and vines weave themselves daily into nooses, whips, and webs. Life’s


cycles seem concentrated there into vivid tableaux: youthful plants and animals sailing


close-hauled toward the sun, others falling away to the seething, regenerative cauldron on


the forest floor--huge leaves tumbling like wounded birds, flowers and fruits like


guillotined heroes, small animals like cliff divers.


The intensity of life and death in the forest makes the Umbas eager to participate:


because eighty years is too long a wait, they die young. And because death for them is a


state of grace, they die often, passing away and reviving themselves perhaps dozens of


times in the course of a normal life span.


When alive, Umbas are obsessed with order. If they decide they need a new


village, they walk off a plot of ground exactly one hundred sixty three steps on each side.


Then they take machetes and cut down every tree, bush, vine, and weed within the plot.


When the cuttings are removed, they have a perfect square of packed dirt on which to


build their huts, which measure exactly six steps on each side and are made from a single


tree, the walls of rectangular planks cut from the trunk and the roof thatched neatly from the leaves. Inside, there are one-step by two-step sleeping mats woven from sweet


smelling vines.


Umba society is steeply hierarchical, with strict codes of behavior and a rigid


division of labor. The tribal chief has four ranked assistants who are local chiefs for the


four known Umba villages in the forest. Each village chief in turn has three assistants, the


first an information officer who gathers reports of suspicious and unbecoming behavior,


the second an enforcer for the chief’s rulings on such behavior, and the third responsible


solely for matters of the dead, which include death announcements and, occasionally,




Every man in the village works for one of these three assistants, and each man is


ranked by age. The women work for their husbands, first wives ranked higher than


second. Children answer directly to their mothers and are ranked by their ages. In this


way, the government of the village runs smoothly: every member of the tribe is also a


member of the government. No one can complain about the administration.


Social codes dictate almost every aspect of Umba behavior. An Umba of a lower


rank, for instance, may not look an Umba of higher rank in the eye, which means, because


all Umbas are ranked, that living Umbas never have their glances met. Neither may a


lower ranked Umba speak first to a higher ranked one. If an Umba has information to


report, he must stand in his superior’s presence until commanded to speak. Thus, idle


conversation is rare among living Umbas.


On the other hand, when Umbas die, they may do as they please.


Sometimes the Umbas die for only a few hours, sometimes for a year. With


practice, it’s said, the dead learn to make their bodies rot. That’s a sign to the living not to expect them back.


An Umba can die in a variety of ways. He may sleep late one morning and not be


roused from his sleeping mat. He may eat too much, or not enough. He may be on his


way to the minister of the department of enforcement for punishment when, walking on


one of the rock-lined, arrow-straight paths, he may suddenly clutch his chest or his throat


or trip and fall a little too hard. If something like this happens, an officer of the


department of death must inspect the body and then relay his observations up the chain of


command to the director of the department of death, the chief’s assistant, who reviews the




Are the eyes closed? Check.


Do they not open when the body is shaken? Check.


Does the body not stir when its name is called? Check.


If these conditions are met, the director declares the fallen Umba dead and then


reports this information (with downcast eyes) to the village chief. The death


announcement descends the chain of command to the small crowd that has gathered


around the fallen man. Then the officer who first discovered the body announces to


everyone, “This man [or woman] has been declared dead by his greatness the director of


the department of death, whose decision is approved by the royal supreme chief of our


village. Let it be noted by all.”


The crowd disperses and returns to its daily business. Shortly thereafter, the dead


Umba also gets up and begins life as a member of the deceased.


For an Umba, death can be an attractive alternative to living. A dead Umba is


constrained by no social codes and needn’t obey any laws. He can look at who he wants, speak his mind to anyone, travel where he wants and sleep where he wants.


A dead Umba may laugh in the face of his still-living superior. A dead man may


steal vegetables from a garden, or pluck a bite of meat right off a living man’s fire. A dead


woman may sleep with a living woman’s husband, or a dead man with a living man’s wife


(living Umbas explain this with their own versions of the incubus and succubus). Dead


Umbas habitually transgress against the living in countless ways, including theft,


vandalism, and bawdy practical jokes. They may be as troublesome or coarse as they like,


without fear of the consequences.


Because, after all, the living do not recognize the presence of the dead. A husband


and wife might be having sex before an audience of dead voyeurs, but of course the couple


feel no shame—the staring eyes of the dead don’t register. The dead may shout in the ears


of the living, but their voices go unheard. If the living think they hear something and react


as though startled, someone will laugh, “You must be hearing ghosts.” And if the dead


trip up the living or shove them to the ground, onlookers will simply call them clumsy.


Another advantage of being dead is the freedom to socialize. Umbas as far apart in


life as a second level officer and an eighth level officer’s second wife may, in death, look


each other in the eye and carry on a friendly and aimless conversation. The dead rejoice in


gossip, since they are experts at uncovering secrets around the village. Some who plan on


being dead for months or longer even build huts and marry, but there’s a danger that


because the living consider the mysterious huts unoccupied, they may one day take


machetes to them and plant perfectly square gardens in their places.


The dead often go out into the forest at night and hold outrageous and orgiastic


parties, making a mockery of the solemn density of life around them. They dance, sing, and howl like the living would never do. They strip themselves naked and romp like


shameless animals. They concoct a pungent alcoholic beverage called the Drink of the


Dead, and they get so drunk that if they were alive they’d be hauled in front of the village


chief himself for caning (and then they’d wish they were dead). Sometimes the dead come


running through the village in rowdy groups, shouting and banging on huts and


vandalizing property. The living, if they notice anything at all, will mistake this for a




At some point, the Umbas get tired of being dead. The bacchanalia wears on


them, and their natural desire for order and propriety takes over. When this happens, they


return to the spot of their death and lie down in the position of their death. After a few


minutes, someone will come along and say, “I believe this body is stirring!” The message


is sent up the chain of command to the director of the department of death.


Is the body breathing? Check.


Does the blood move beneath the skin? Check.


Does the body stir when its name is called? Check.


If these conditions are met, the dead Umba is then declared living, the ruling is


passed down through the ranks, and the officer who first noticed the body announces to


the small crowd, “This man has been declared living by his greatness the director of the


department of death, whose decision is approved by the royal supreme chief of our village.


Let it be noted by all.”


The man then opens his eyes, careful not to look at any of his superiors, gets up,


and returns to his hut to resume his carefully regimented life.


No Umba may be held accountable for any action performed while dead, of course, because no living Umba recognizes a dead one. Neither may an Umba repeat any


information learned while dead or relate any experience of being dead, which is a good


thing, because most of a dead Umba’s behavior would cause acute embarrassment in life.


Still, the revived man feels a sadness he can’t fully explain, and which will


eventually lead him back to life among the dead. He has made friends in death that he’d


never have made in life. He’s done and seen things in death that he never could have in


life. He’s fallen in love a dozen times over, changed his name and ways a dozen times


over. He’s learned a new dance for each night of the week, a new song for each morning.


Back from the dead, his memories of it already fading, he knows he’s lived more each


night of his death than in a hundred nights of living.


The rain is not letting up. The anthropologist moves his flashlight beam over the
walls of the priestess’ hut, making random designs on the thatching.
“I don’t understand why you use these fake lights,” says the priestess. “There is
a reason for darkness. What can you see with your light that you don’t already know is
“Sometimes I forget what’s there,” says the anthropologist.
“You must have a poor memory.”
He shines the light in her eyes and takes some minute pleasure in her squint.
“You’re right. I was remembering how only yesterday I watched a gentle and beautiful
priestess perform a jaguar dance around the fire. Now I see she’s an executioner.”
“In that case your memory’s just fine. It’s your light that’s flawed.” She holds
out her hand. “Let me show you.”
The priestess slides the beam over her calves and knees, up and across her
rounded hips, circling her lower parts, flashing between her soft brown thighs. His eyes
follow the motion of the light, but it’s the shadows that imprint themselves. The light, he
decides, is only as good as the darkness around it.
She tosses the light back to him.
“Anyway, what is there for you to remember when all you do is take notes?” she asks. “All those times I was dancing, you were just leaning against a tree scratching in
your notebook. You never noticed how I was dancing just for you—and laughing at you,
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s no such thing as a jaguar dance, it’s just something I made up to get
you to dance with me. But you never did. This is why you must be beheaded. Maybe
then you will dance.”
“Limply,” he points out.
“That’s better than nothing.”
“I thought you said I was going to be killed for learning too much.”
She shakes her head. “Probably not.”
“Then I’m free to go?”
“No, you’re still going to be killed, but not for the reason I told you.”
“Then why? For stealing your people’s spirits with my notes?”
“Sometimes you talk like an anthropologist. Very disappointing.”
“Why then?”
“You insist on knowing everything!”
“Humor me!”
“Okay.” She drags a finger down her round cheek and sighs. “Because any man
who sleeps with the priestess must be executed.”
He shines the flashlight beam on her face again, tries to read if she’s joking.
“But I haven’t slept with you.”
“Now you know the reason I had you brought to me.” She turns away and lets one arm fall over the side of the hammock.
The anthropologist watches her loose wrist swing with the hammock as he waits
for his anger to finish rising. “You shouldn’t have lied to me,” he says.
“You should have taken better notes. Then I wouldn’t have had to,” she says.
“At least you are being killed for a good reason.” She moves her wrist to her forehead.
“And what if I don’t sleep with you?”
“Then you’ll be killed for the first reason.”
“Because I’ve learned too much?”
“Yes. And then at least I won’t have lied to you after all.”
The anthropologist thinks about this. “So I’m down to two choices,” he says.
“I’ll be killed either for something I’ve already done or for something I haven’t yet
“Why should you be different from anyone else?”
He shakes his head. “Sometimes you talk like a priestess,” he says.
“It’s one of my duties.”
He stands up and turns his back to her, shining his flashlight out into the rain and
the pitch-black forest just beyond his beam. Should he make a run for it? He’s days
away from any road or passable river, a week or more from the airstrip. In the darkness
he’d be easy game for jaguars and anacondas or the night versions of a hundred other
animals that are harmless in daylight. What good would a notebook and flashlight be to
him out there?
Still, what choice does he have? He’s trapped between capital offenses.
It occurs to him that maybe the priestess sent away the guards on purpose, to make him consider his manner of death and reach his own decision. Does he set off
alone, or die at the hands of others? Does he leave his fate in nature’s hands or
If he wants to live, and he does, the difference, he decides, lies only in the quality
of hope.
In that case there’s no question. He’s been a professional anthropologist, then a
lapsed and lazy one, and now he’ll be a dead lover. Out in the rain forest, in the middle
of the night, he’d be nothing but a piece of meat.
He can’t save his life, but he can extend it. Before this lapse in judgment, he’d
measured his life in timely departures. Now he must survive by strategic delay. He’ll
have to convince the priestess that they are moving ever closer to satisfying her desire.
Small reversals are possible, so long as they are offset by what follows. If the reversal is
too distracting or the delay so long that boredom overtakes it, she’ll lose her desire and
have him beheaded for notetaking. On the other hand, if he satisfies her fully, he’ll be
beheaded for sleeping with a priestess. It’s the art of foreplay, with consequences.
He looks at the priestess’ nude body. He has watched her dance, admired her,
and felt an ache he knew even then was dangerous. He can no longer distract himself
with notetaking.
“Is there room in that hammock for two?” he asks.
The priestess turns on her side and slides her hips over. “I thought you’d never
The anthropologist climbs in next to her, armed with the only things left for his
defense: his notes and flashlights, and the stories and shadows they make.




The Swakes don’t stand out as tourists do. They blend in, chameleon-like. When


they travel to a new country, they learn the language fluently, and they speak with no


accent because they have no language of their own. They adopt easily to the customs of a


country because they have no customs of their own. They walk, talk, and behave in every


way as though they are natives of the country they visit.


Even the color of their skin changes. In a country of dark people, the Swakes’


skin will darken quickly in the sun. Maybe they won’t be quite as dark as the majority of


the inhabitants, but if they act like locals no one will notice. Then, in a country of light


skinned people, the Swakes will lose their tans quickly. Maybe their skin will be a little


darker than most, but when they speak the native tongue so gracefully, who can argue that


they aren’t natives themselves?


It is said that by the time a Swake reaches adulthood, he knows all the major


languages of the world and half the minor ones. This is because the Swakes never stay in


a country longer than a year. Why should they? They have no cultural ties to the land or


people, so at the slightest inclination they move on. And they travel lightly, carrying only


the clothes on their backs, since they keep no souvenirs. Once they reach a new land, their old clothes are exchanged for local attire.


The Swakes don’t carry money from one land to the next, either, because they


know they can fit in well enough to get jobs upon arrival. And they know most kinds of


building techniques, so in each new land they build their own dwelling, one that


harmonizes perfectly with the local architecture and environment. In lands where the


Swakes would be looked upon strangely for building their own houses, they dress up in


work clothes and pretend they are professional builders. They build modest, unassuming


dwellings, and after a few months they abandon them and move on.


The Swakes have no common religion, mythology, or value system. Instead, they


adopt the beliefs of the country they’re in, attending churches, synagogues, or temples and


worshipping with the locals. Neither do they have any common ceremonies for rites of


passage. Rituals to solemnify death and to celebrate birth, puberty, and marriage are


determined by the land the Swakes happen to be in at the time. However, because the


Swakes know most of the cultural ceremonies in the world, they will often travel to a


particular country to take part in the ceremony of choice. A Swake couple who wishes to


be married in their bare feet, for example, will remember a country with barefooted


marriages and will convince their families to travel there. Then the Swakes will leave


unnoticed in the dead of night, traveling by plane, train, foot, or car, arriving in the new


land, also unnoticed, and also in the dead of night.


It’s not clear when the Swakes first began to travel and where from. If the Swakes


know, they aren’t saying. It may be that the Swakes have no native land. Or it may be


that they carry their native land with them as they travel from country to country. Some


say that the Swakes have no culture at all, except for traveling, and that they don’t even deserve a name. But others argue that the Swakes do have a culture; it is culture in the


abstract, a culture of set patterns but infinitely variable form, observable only to other


Swakes. They communicate in subtle ways, too subtle for anyone but Swakes to


recognize. They recognize each other even in large crowds, and then they greet each


other using the greeting custom of the locals, the language of the locals, even calling


themselves by local names. They talk about local subjects—local politics, perhaps, or


sports teams, or shopping bargains, or food. To passersby, they are just another couple of


locals chatting the way locals do. But within that conversation that others hear, they are


also having a conversation in Swake.


What do they say? Probably little. It’s something, but it’s not something one can


put into words. The effect is of a general acknowledgment of their Swakeness, a knowing


exchange of metaphors for their nonexistent homeland. Swakes renew their friendships


this way, and they renew whatever it is that makes them think of themselves as Swakes.


On certain rare occasions, they tell each other where they are going next. This is how


word gets around when the scattered Swakes agree to meet. They choose one land and


gather there by the hundreds or thousands for a festival. The festival may take the form of


a party or a dance or a political convention or whatever local options there are for


gathering in large groups. Locals may even be in attendance, never knowing that they are


surrounded by Swakes. After all, the Swakes are singing the local songs and dancing the


local dances and telling jokes in the local tongue. But those dancing Swakes, so much like


the locals, somehow apply their own pattern to the dances. How they do it isn’t clear.


They may alter the movements of the dance just slightly, or their steps may draw out a


design on the ground that is familiar only to Swakes. And when the Swakes sing the songs of another culture, the inflections in their voices follow a pattern known only to


Swakes. Or maybe it’s that they are sometimes a little flat and sometimes a little sharp,


but in a sequence known only to Swakes. When they speak in conversation, they use the


local tongue but speak in a grammatical pattern that is meaningful to other Swakes. Or


they alter the tone of their voices according to a Swake tonal pattern.


Wherever the Swakes marry, they do so according to local custom, but the real


Swake ceremony is taking place unnoticed to all but the Swakes. They may marry in a


church in Mexico, with both Swakes and non-Swakes in attendance, but the Swakes see


one thing and the non-Swakes see another. The Swakes see the pattern in the steps down


the aisle. They hear the inflections in the vows. They notice the changing postures of the


bride and groom. They count the blinks and pay attention to the fidgeting hands. They


notice the angle formed by the heads as the bride and groom kiss. They notice the arc of


the bouquet as it flies through the air. And when they congratulate the bride and groom,


they do so in Spanish, but with a pattern in the words and pauses that also congratulates


them in Swake.


It’s not known whether the Swakes ever had a physical aspect to their culture. If


so, they’ve likely forgotten it. Now their culture survives only by clothing itself in other


cultures, and if the world’s cultures were destroyed tomorrow, leaving only the Swakes to


carry on, the Swakes would not know how to behave. Their patterns, which are surely


beautiful in themselves, would be meaningless without the borrowed cultures to express


them. The Swakes would probably wither and die. Or else they’d immerse themselves in


animal cultures, grunting and snorting and foraging for food in patterns that reaffirm their


Swakehood. There are some Swakes who’ve lost their way in the world, having spent too much


time in one country and without the company of other Swakes. They begin to doubt if


they are still Swakes. They look desperately for patterns in others, something that gives


them a secret message. They create subtle patterns in their own behavior, hoping others


get the message. They’ll pass someone on the street, look into their eyes, notice the way


they blink, and will wonder if a message has passed between them, something only a


Swake would understand. War


The Fachee believe that during the great flood, which lasted thousands of years,


fish were the undisputed rulers of the earth. Of course, the ruler of the earth is nothing


compared to Wah, the ruler of the sky, who can cause the world to flood or dry up on a


whim. So after a long period of rule, the fish became jealous of Wah’s power and


complained to Wah. “What good is ruling the earth if we can be dethroned on a whim?”


“Good point!” said Wah, who with a single wag of his finger then withdrew the


floodwaters and with them the fish’s power. Wah decided that in order to keep the


creatures of the earth appreciative, or at least uncomplaining, he would keep them


occupied in a permanent state of battle. So he invented a wide variety of creatures and set


them loose upon the earth, explaining to them that a contest had been declared and that


the winner would have complete control over the earth and would answer only to Wah.


He relegated the fish to the lowest ranks of the animals.


The Fachee are high up the food chain, but they take their battle just as seriously as


the other animals. They know the stakes are high; the smallest error could result in their


subjugation to a junta of skunks.


These are the warrior traits the Fachee believe are in their favor: they are, on average, more intelligent than most creatures, which allows them to coordinate complex


battle plans; their voices, on average, have a greater tonal range than other creatures, so


that their communications on the battlefield are more finely tuned with meaning; they are


better, on average, at throwing things (rocks, spears, arrows from bows), far better than


their closest throwing rival, the eagle, whose bombs are rarely accurate and damage little


more than pride.


These are their weaknesses: they have dull and quickly-decaying teeth, bad for


jaw-to-jaw combat and a sometimes painful distraction in the heat of battle; their two


legged gait is slow and somewhat awkward, so that most four-legged creatures could


overtake them in a retreat, laughing at the human awkwardness as they stretch their jaws


out to nip the skin off a Fachee’s ankles; they have no fur, so they must hunt other animals


to steal their skins; they sometimes act against their better judgment, proceeding rashly


into battle, or challenging a much larger animal out of pride alone; and their children have


a tendency to wander off.


Wah gave each species of animals its own set of advantages and disadvantages, so


that no one animal has the clear upper hand. The grizzly, the Fachees’ most frightening


rival, is strong and intelligent, but is a poor thrower and has such a weakness for fish that


a man with a rock can sneak up on and fell a fishing grizzly with a single well-aimed




The Fachee are boastful about their victories and use every opportunity to fortify


each other with pride. When they hunt down a deer and kill it with a single arrow they


say, “Look at that, could a grizzly have done that?”


“No,” someone will respond, “we are clearly superior to grizzlies.” At dinner, the women will make a thick and flavorful stew with the venison, and


they’ll say, “Taste this stew. Could a squirrel have made that?”


“No,” is the correct response, “we are clearly superior to squirrels.”


To an outsider, such talk makes the Fachee sound insecure. But the Fachee don’t


live in big cities where they can go to the zoo and see animals in cages or walled


compounds. They don’t walk out of their apartment buildings and find dogs and pigeons


begging them for scraps of food. They have to find other ways to reinforce a sense of


natural superiority.


One might expect that with so much at stake, the Fachee would slaughter animals


indiscriminately. But the Fachee don’t underestimate their foes. They believe that an all


out slaughter would cause many species of animals to ally against them, and the Fachee, as


boastful as they are, know they would not stand a chance in a one-against-all battle, even


with superior intelligence and throwing ability. Instead, the battle is fought mainly in


skirmishes--five Fachee meet up with an angry bear, or a pair of eagles dive-bombs a stray


Fachee child. At this rate, the battle might take thousands of years to win, but the Fachee


are long-term thinkers, and in the meantime, the world remains in relative balance, no


species ever gaining a clear advantage. The lives of the Fachee maintain the weighty sense


of purpose that comes with dedication to a cause, while their occasional victories help


reassure them that they are making progress.


Only once have the Fachee singled out another species for annihilation. It began


one day when a woman awoke in the village to find a pair of groundhogs plundering last


night’s leftovers.


“Get out of here, you bastard groundhogs,” she said, in the usual way that Fachees will try to put down other creatures. Such intrusions had happened before, but this was


right outside the woman’s tent, so the insult rankled her. She sent her son to follow the


groundhogs and teach them a lesson--beat them with a switch, maybe, or throw dirt in


their holes. When the son returned, he was shaking with fear.


“Mother, they have surrounded us,” he said, claiming to have found nests of


groundhogs ringing the village. A council of elders was called and a state of emergency


declared. Scouts were commissioned to scope out the extent of the siege. The elders


believed that the groundhogs’ plan was to steal all the Fachees’ food and starve them into


submission. Many feared that if the Fachees didn’t submit, the groundhogs planned to


sneak into their tents and dig their oversized teeth into the napes of the their necks.


Something had to be done.


A war party was formed, and the party fanned out through the woods, chasing,


digging up, and spearing every groundhog they could get their hands on. They stalked


and ambushed them. They formed circles and chased them inward, tightening the noose


on the swift and slippery but not very bright animals, until they had trapped and


slaughtered as many as they could find. The carnage lasted three days and nights, and no


one could sleep until the battle was won.


And then, when the elders were satisfied that the Fachee had proved their


superiority and taught the groundhogs a lesson, they instructed the war party to capture


the last two groundhogs alive, one male and one female. The frightened and defeated


creatures were brought before the elders.


“You have once again proved to us your foolish and inferior nature,” said the


elders to the groundhogs. “And we, as usual, have shown ourselves to be stronger, more intelligent, and better communicators than you. You were courageous warriors to have


surrounded and besieged our village without our knowledge, but that, as you see, was not




The groundhogs, either out of fear or disdain, turned their faces from the elders


and tried to squeeze themselves from the vice grips of the strong Fachee warriors.


“And so we have proved our natural superiority to you, but like all naturally


superior creatures, we have the capacity for mercy, and this is why we are letting you go.


Just as the great Wah let loose all creatures of the earth in pairs to multiply and run free,


so we release you to multiply your species on the condition that you will, with your


meager communication skills, teach the generations of groundhogs after you never to


challenge us again.”


With that, the groundhogs were released and scampered off into the woods.


That is why the Fachee are kind to groundhogs. They know that the groundhogs


will never wage another war against them. Now, when a Fachee hunts in the woods, or


collects berries, or strolls on a moonlit night with a loved one, he always brings little


scraps of food to throw to the groundhogs who come begging. Weather


The Ailats live on a small, flat island, pretty but not breathtaking, green but not


lush, pleasant but not too popular with tourists, owing to the eccentricities of the


inhabitants. In the days when travel guides bothered to mention the island, they called the


Ailats “erratic and possibly schizophrenic.” One guide related a typical experience for


tourists: “One tranquil afternoon on the wide but seaweed-strewn beach, a friendly
waiter ambushed us with a pair of strawberry daiquiris he explained were compliments of
the hotel manager. We twisted our gaze to the pool area and espied the white-suited
manager waving jovially and beaming our way. The waiter refused his tip with a shy
smile. As we sipped our delightful red concoctions, the beach seemed to us suddenly
cleaner, the brown sea suddenly bluer, and the dark clouds on the horizon but a minor
annoyance. We debated an extra star for the hotel and began to revise upward our luke
warm write-up of the island itself. Then, before we knew it, the threatening clouds were
upon us and the thunderous deluge struck us before we’d quite hunched up the beach,
trying as we were to protect our half-finished drinks from the slings and arrows of
tropical weather. To our astonishment, we reached the glass doorway just in time to
behold the manager locking us out with a twist of his pudgy fingers. He scowled, called us ‘colonialist exploiters,’ and spat disgustingly at the glass as we pounded and pleaded.
When at last he opened the door, it was only to grab our daiquiris, throw the liquid in
our faces, and retrieve the tall glasses for himself. To add insult, our formerly friendly
waiter then crept up behind us, stole our beach bag, and ran off with all of our money.
Needless to say, if our editors granted us the discretion to use negative stars, this island
would receive five of them....”


The one hotel is now abandoned and the tourist industry virtually extinct, but the


Ailats live comfortably, pulling fish and mollusks from the sea, vegetables from their


gardens, and fruit from the abundant trees, trading with neighboring islands for other


necessities, and governing themselves with a small assembly that meets only in times of




One such crisis was a recent drought. The drought did little to affect the Ailats’


food supply--some vegetable gardens might have dried up, but the sea never failed in its


generosity. Nor did it affect their water supply--the freshwater wells flowed on demand.


But the unchanging weather did affect the Ailats psychologically. During this time, the


temperature fluctuated little. The sun shone relentlessly all day long, and at night the


billion-eyed sky gazed untwinklingly. The breeze drifted offshore and back but never


turned gusty. Distant storms remained as aloof as passing ships. Meanwhile, the many


and varied personalities of the Ailats shrank toward a single, sluggish monotony.


Normally, the Ailats’ personalities are as restless as their weather. In fact, every


Ailat has a personality that fluctuates in exact proportion to the changing weather, which


is why the travel writers were treated so differently in the storm than they were in the sun,


and why the drought caused an island-wide malaise. Consider, for instance, an Ailat woman whose personality is dominated by thrift.


That means that, depending on weather conditions, the woman will be either more or less


thrifty. On a calm, sunny day that woman may be disinclined to make any purchases and


may plant a garden to cut back on her food costs. If the wind picks up and a few clouds


move in, the same woman may decide to visit the local store and purchase some seedlings


to save herself some time and effort in her garden. If a thunderstorm moves in, she may


decide to scrap the garden idea for a while; she might even spend half her savings on a


catered dinner party. In a hurricane, the woman would take all of her money and throw it


into the angry sea. Or consider a man whose personality is dominated by sociability. On a


calm day, that man will be outgoing, gentle, talkative, eager to please. When the wind


stirs and clouds form on the horizon, you might overhear him make a joke at his friend’s


expense. In a storm, he may grow anxious to leave “these obnoxious idiots” at a party


and retreat to his home. In a hurricane, he may brave the winds and the flooding to break


down the door of his best friend’s house and spit in his friend’s face.


To the Ailats, storm-time and calm-time are the point and counterpoint of life’s


argument. In storm-time, a shy person will become bold, a depressed person will grow


elated, a timid lover will become passionate, a bore will become charismatic, an honest


person will become a liar. And of course these things work in reverse. A person who is


mean-spirited or wasteful in calm-time becomes friendly or miserly in storms.


Knowing this allows the Ailats to predict their own and others’ behavior in ways


that psychologists and politicians only dream of. Say, for instance, a woman is attracted


to a man who shies away from her during calm-time. She knows that during storm-time,


she can brave the wind and rain and visit his house, and he’ll be waiting for her. With the storm raging around them, they’ll make love passionately —on his bed, in his kitchen,


perhaps even bursting through the front door and out into the rain, rolling in the mud if


necessary, the lightning splitting trees all around them. The man wouldn’t care--he’s


become a passionate lover who desires her more than anything. In the morning, when the


world is still and calm-time has returned, the man will insist that the woman leave him


alone and will beg off the foolish promises he made the night before. As the woman


leaves, she’ll notice a line of clouds on the eastern horizon, and she’ll know to expect


those same promises again tonight.


The island of the Ailats lies directly in one of the favorite paths of hurricanes.


Every few years, they are struck by all the chaotic and destructive forces of nature. As


with other islands, the Ailats suffer incredible damage and loss of life, but for the Ailats,


the destructive force of the wind and water is aggravated by the personality extremes


reached at the height of the storm. Those who in calm-time are introverted, shy, timid,


reserved, cautious, bashful, skittish, wary, or fearful will rush out into the hurricane,


emboldened by storm-time. They stand on the beach and shout obscenities at the


approaching storm. They take suicidal dives into the rabid waves. Meanwhile, the


formerly thrifty are tossing their money into the sea, the formerly honest are looting the


few small stores on the island, and the formerly friendly are beating their best friends with


sticks. And then there are the passionate lovers, spilling out of their shuddering houses to


make love in the flood waters, their tangled bodies flowing out to sea, the waves crushing


them closer together, their lungs filling with seawater, but their lovemaking enduring to


the last beats of their waterlogged hearts.


In the recent drought, the Ailats felt trapped. After a while, the constant sun felt like a jailer, the gentle breeze like a short chain. They were prisoners of stale weather.


The democratic assembly met in the crumbling dining room of the old hotel.


Debates ensued. Some suggested that they call in the U.S. Weather Service to seed some


clouds. Others wondered aloud if storm-time could be simulated with giant fans and


automatic sprinklers. A few militant members proposed an invasion of a neighboring


island known for attracting furious storms. Initially, the debaters spoke without much


conviction. Like prisoners confined too long without stimulation, they found thinking,


believing, and acting difficult and pointless.


Slowly, however, and without their notice, the tensions and energies escalated.


Opposing sides diverged radically, irreparable rifts formed in coalitions, tempers flared,


speakers pounded their podiums as the sweat rolled off their foreheads and across their


cheeks, a fistfight sparked a melee. Some tried to quell the violence, pleading for simple


acts of politeness and decency, reaching out to shake the hands that had just struck them,


hugging those whose venomous words were meant to harm, patting the backs of those


who choked on their own anger. As the melee spread, the pacifists redoubled their efforts


such that their aggressive hugs were indistinguishable from the wrestling of the fighters.


Tables and chairs were splintered both in anger and admiration.


At last someone paused long enough to glance out the row of oversized windows.


“It’s storm-time!” came the shout, and all heads turned to the dark, ragged clouds, the


driving rain, the demonic breakers, the waterspouts drilling the roiling sea. Then the


assembly poured out into the tropical storm, joined up with the rest of the half-crazy


islanders, and the melee continued its reckless tumult.


The Ailats looked rapturous in their abandon, like captives just released or lovers reunited, even when they bashed each other’s heads or kicked senselessly and angrily at


the breaking waves that swept them away. They didn’t care; the storm had made them


whole again. Wind


The Roosh’s aerodynamic physical features show the effects of hundreds of


generations in a windy environment. They are short and thin, with strong legs to keep


them upright in gusts. Their noses are narrow with bulbous tips to deflect the wind before


it reaches their eyes, which are deep-set and dark, pockets of calm in the turbulence.


Their cheekbones are high and their jaws angular, their faces delicate chevrons. The men


shave their heads, and on warm days enjoy the pleasure of the wind across their naked


scalps. The women grow their hair long and keep it tied in back, out of their faces, except


in lighter winds, when they let their hair fly and marvel at the lift it generates, the way it


would surely pull them off their horses in a strong gale and raise them into the startling


and infinite blue above the plains.


On the Roosh’s gently rolling landscape, the winds on an average day would be


enough to knock down trees, which explains why there aren’t any. An outsider would


have to shield his eyes and turn his face from this wind, and gusts would blow him into the


needlegrass. But the Roosh remain firmly planted, with a gentle, almost imperceptible


lean into the wind, as though they have a mechanism in their bodies that anticipates the


gusts and prepares unconsciously. On days when the winds gust and shift erratically, the Roosh’s leaning becomes a graceful dance, an entire camp leaning one way and the other.


Despite appearances, the Roosh are constantly aware of the wind. They have no


written language, and so the motion of the air is their only means to communicate.


Without the wind they’d wander aimlessly on the endless and barren plains, never sure


where to find game or edible roots, never sure when to camp or move on. Worse, without


the wind, their entire tribe would dissolve into an isolationist band of melancholy navel




To them, the wind is a necessary third-party in their communications, a go


between or runner. This fact alone makes them seem isolated, even from each other: the


Roosh don’t speak directly to each other; they speak to the wind, and the wind carries


their words for them. Generally, the Roosh aren’t troubled by this. They know that if


they show the proper respect for the wind, it will carry their messages faithfully.


Showing the proper respect means that the Roosh are always alert to the wind’s


subtleties—its direction, its shifts, the strengths of its bursts and softer undertones, the


temperature of its notes. It means, too, that the Roosh are forbidden to make any gesture


that defies the wind—to speak, spit, or flatulate into the wind is a terrible blasphemy.


But it’s true that the Roosh have uncertainties that other peoples don’t think of.


Say a Roosh mother speaks to the wind, the wind carries her message to her son, but the


son doesn’t behave as she expects. Suddenly her faith in the wind is shaken ever so


slightly, and she can’t help but wonder if the wind has played a trick and changed her


words before they reached her son. Or if a lover’s pleas get no response from his beloved,


he wonders if his messages are even reaching her ears. He curses the wind, grows


melancholy and withdrawn, and concludes we are all prisoners of our own skin, at the mercy of fickle winds, ultimately unknown and unknowable to others.


The Roosh are most afraid of the rare days when there is no wind at all and a


deadly silence settles on the plains. Talking is pointless, then, and everything that had


seemed worthwhile only yesterday now seems static and foolish. Leaders are unable to


make decisions, hunters don’t know where to find food, and most people stay in their


tents, searching their memories for behavior that might have offended the winds. They


make all kinds of pledges to improve themselves in thought and deed, deeply agitated until


the winds pick up again. When the winds finally return, the whole village celebrates in


what’s known as a rabash, or talk-circle.


The talk circles follow from the Roosh custom that in any conversation, the


speaker must be upwind and the listener downwind. Thus, when two Roosh converse,


they circle around each other, chins raised in solemn respect for the wind, speaking and


listening, speaking and listening, each according to his position in the talk-circle. They


often hold hands as they speak, and fast talkers look like a pair of children swinging each


other around, leaning back against the sky, defying gravity with their words.


For ceremonies and celebrations, the Roosh form a huge talk circle out of the


entire community. Sometimes the person at the head of the circle (facing downwind, the


honored position) will begin with the opening line of a story. The circle then moves,


slowly at first, counterclockwise, with each person in turn adding a line to the story.


Sometimes the stories recount the history of the tribe. At other times, the stories are


inventions purely for entertainment, and these often become contests of cleverness and


originality in which the story swerves in surprising directions that challenge the next


speaker to think quick. The rotation speed is increased with each revolution, and then the circle becomes a game of quickness. If a speaker stumbles over the next line, he is


removed from the circle to the laughter and comic jeers of the others. The circle then


accelerates as it tightens, but also jerks to a halt more frequently as fumblers get ousted.


The last few rounds are spectacular displays of mental and physical agility, with


participants swinging each other in a blur and jabbering like auctioneers. The last two


participants grab each other’s wrists and kick up a cloud of dust that blows into the


ecstatic crowd. Their words come in staccato gusts until one falters and they stop, the


crowd still cheering, and hug each other while their dizziness subsides.


The Roosh have hundreds of names for the winds that blow on the plains, each of


which has special significance, both individually and in combination with other winds. The


mahoon is a wind that blows from the west, steady and strong for at least a minute at a


time, and wrapping itself around things, so that the Roosh feel it on both sides of their


bodies at once. Such a wind is calming and makes the Roosh believe the day will go well.


A sapooth is a wind from any direction that seems to press down from the sky, adding


weight and making travel slower. It brings messages from the sky, usually forewarnings


of a difficult winter or an approaching calm. The Roosh are fondest of the cloopit, usually


out of the north-northwest, which comes in big, laughing bursts followed by teasing


moments of silence. A day of cloopit usually inspires a communal talk-circle.


When the Roosh die, their bodies are burnt in a fire pit and their ashes scattered to


the winds. The winds of the dead are never spoken of by name. They swirl aloft, carrying


the ashes of hundreds of generations, all spinning in an endless talk circle for those among


the living who will lift their chins and listen. Streams of Conscience


The Tanu live in a hilly land with few rivers but many streams, the voices of which


can be heard day and night, from hilltop and forest, in the backs of conversations and


interjecting themselves into thoughts. The Tanu streams talk incessantly, in fact. And the


streams hold no secrets, say the Tanu, because for streams thought and speech are one and


the same, with no filter to divide the two, no intermediary to convert one to the other.


This explains their purity; the streams live with a clear conscience because they bare their


souls every moment of the day. Confession isn’t the word for it, since the streams never


for one second let a word or deed weigh on their souls. Anyway, since they spend the day


speaking their thoughts, they have no time to sin.


Some Tanu wish the streams would shut up. “Talk, talk, talk,” they say. “The


streams should find something better to do. They should be quiet for just a minute and


take in the view.” But the Tanu who complain this way often have guilty consciences, and


for a Tanu with a guilty conscience, the talk of the streams sounds a lot like an accusation.


Most of the Tanu find the talk of the streams soothing, the cooing voice of mother


to child. When they feel bored or despondent, they find a private spot beside one of the


many streams and are healed there by the voice of the stream, gurgling, cooing, bubbling its every thought. They stare into its pure soul, at the fish and the frogs that swim in it,


and the words of the stream wash over them and refresh them like a bath. But when they


are guilty, they stay away.


The guilty must live with the weight of their guilt, swelling more each day, until


they are called before the village water-priest. The priest has the power to turn people


into streams. He will call you in when your symptoms are brought to his attention: long,


pointed silences, heavy steps with a hanging head, and a fear or loathing of the limpid


voice of the streams. Sometimes the priest observes for himself, and sometimes the


symptoms are brought to his attention. Sometimes, when a theft or an adultery or some


other crime is committed, the priest is told in advance what to look for. The offender may


at first cover his symptoms well, but the priest watches patiently. Sooner or later, the


offender’s head sinks a little lower and his steps grow a little heavier and the few times he


speaks his voice falls to the ground, weighted with guilt. Then the priest knows. Still, he


waits, and waits more, until the offender’s guilt has become so heavy he’s willing to


submit to the pain and terror of the transformation—anything, as long as the sludge of


guilt is scrubbed from his soul. And then the priest sends his messenger.


When you are called before the water-priest, your skin begins to tremble, like a


stream, and your words become babble, like a stream’s, and drops of water flow from


your forehead, each like a tiny stream. But the final transformation takes place only on the


priest’s command. You enter the priest’s hut and kneel before him. For some people, this


moment results in a loss of bladder control, another sign of the transformation.


“Priest,” you say, “my soul is clouded with sin and I have concealed it with


silence.” “Your silence has been felt in the village,” says the priest. “It is a heavy rock on all


of our shoulders.”


“Forgive me,” you say.


“Your forgiveness will come only from a cleansing,” says the priest, “and a


cleansing will come from the stream.”


At that, the priest steps forward and rubs your cheeks. If you didn’t lose bladder


control before, you surely will now. For now you know the transformation is taking


place. Your limbs become liquid, so that someone must hold you up. Your entire body


becomes soaked in your own fluids. And then the burden of silence is released and your


words flow endlessly, so that everything once closed within you is released in a flood of


words, of secrets and confessions, of brilliant and foolish thoughts, of idle chatter and


endless babble, of gossip and blather, chit-chat, prattle, and palaver, tittle-tattle, malarkey,


and buncombe. It all comes out, both nonsense and poetry, cleansing your soul.


Sometimes the cleansing takes just a few minutes and sometimes days. You talk and talk


as the priest listens closely, not so much for the meanings of your words but for the


texture of your voice, which is a sign of your soul’s clarity. When the priest is satisfied


that your voice is that of the pure streams, babbling nonsensically but also calmly and


clearly, he pours a small vial of water over your head.


“Behold,” announces the water-priest to the fascinated observers, “his soul is


cleansed, and he who was once heavy is now light. He who was once guilty is now the


purest among us.”


And then you collapse and are carried back to your hut ceremonially, by those who


consider it an honor to do so. You sleep longer and deeper than you’ve ever slept, and when you awake it is to a world of lightness and perfection, in which the babble of streams


calls to you like the voice of an adoring mother. You run to the nearest stream and bathe


naked in its waters, your thoughts so light they are swept away unformed. And for a


while, at least, you are part of the stream. For Love


When an Ioomi man first feels the undeniable stirrings of love for a woman, he


checks his pulse, swallows his fears, and confides in his closest friend and confidante.


The confidante follows his friend around for a week or two, observing the


reactions of the man to his intended.


“Is she not beautiful?” the man says to his confidante as they watch the woman


bathe beneath one of the many cool and fragrant waterfalls that wash over this remote


volcanic island. “Does she not swim with the grace of a fish?” the man says as they watch


the woman dive for mollusks in the limpid sea.


The confidante watches carefully, silently remarking the proof that his friend is in


love: the glassy eyes, the breathless words, the trembling hands.


He is also watching the girl, for he knows that in the next life it will be he who


must love her. That is the cycle of love and death in the Ioomi world.


When the confidante has gathered his evidence, he pays a visit to the ooli, a kind


of love doctor.


“My friend is lovesick,” he tells the ooli.


“Are your friend’s eyes glassy, like the evening sea that pines for the moon?” asks the ooli.


“His eyes are glassy and he pines for a woman,” answers the confidante.


“Are his words breathless, like the branches of palms that pine for the wind?”


“His words are breathless and he pines for a woman,” answers the confidante.


“Do his hands tremble, like the earth that pines for Mahooi,” asks the ooli,


referring to the god of the volcano.


“His hands tremble and he pines for a woman.”


“Then you have correctly diagnosed your friend’s illness. Well done,” says the


ooli. “Now it is time for the cure. Do what is required, and may you be shown the same


kindness in your next life.”


The confidante has known all along it would come to this. Now it is he who must


check his pulse and swallow his fears.


“I know the cure for your bursting heart,” he says to his friend, who then embraces


him and responds knowingly, “You are the one I can count on. I will one day repay you in


kind,” one day understood by both to mean in the next life, when their roles will be




And then the confidante retreats to his hut for a period of contemplation, in which


he must determine the best method to sacrifice himself for his friend’s love and secure for


his friend the wife he so desires.


In the old days, a confidante’s role was much easier: he simply threw himself into


the hot lava pools that bubble at the mouth of the volcano. Some say that the method


changed when an eruption by Mahooi was attributed to an overflow of love sacrifices.


Even Mahooi can only accept so much love, they say. Others say the change came simply out of boredom, that the confidantes demanded greater creative freedom.


Now, each new generation of confidantes seems to want to outdo their


predecessors. Generations ago, a popular method was to dive head first from a tall


coconut tree. Not long ago, confidantes found ingenious uses for fire, burning themselves


on a stake, tripping face first into a bed of hot coals, or rowing out to sea in a burning


canoe. The current rage is to swim with bleeding fish tied to your waist, inviting the


sharks to eat you.


Once the confidantes were given their creative freedom, people naturally began to


judge them on style. The more frightening, original, and painful the death, the greater the


declaration of love, and thus the greater attraction a woman feels for her fiancé.


The confidante considers his options for the marriage proposal, weighing tradition


against originality, and at last he reaches his decision.


Some days later, a group of young friends, male and female, are gathered around a


typical beachside fire, tasting sweet fruits while a mako shark crackles over the flames.


The lover eyes his beloved, palms sweating. He doesn’t know when his love will be


announced, but he knows it will be soon; the girl, on the other hand, may have no idea that


the boy is even interested.


Suddenly, the group hears a stirring in the top of a palm, and in the next instant,


the confidante appears against the blue sky in a swan dive so graceful that those watching


cannot believe the earth would dare stand in his way. But it does, and his neck is broken,


though not until he has crashed through the roasting shark and sent a plume of cinders and


sharkmeat over everyone.


When the ashes settle and the young people stand up, the identities of the newly engaged couple are finally revealed by the names the confidante had carefully tattooed to


his feet, one on each: Pua and Pulani.


Pua takes Pulani’s hand. They are pleased with the spectacular combination of the


tree-fall and the fire-leap, both of which pay homage to tradition, while the shark, of


course, alluded to the new style of the current generation. The couple feel a humbling but


cozy sense of their place in history but also the freshness of the new. It is love that


connects them to both.


Pulani accepts, of course.


In theory a woman may reject the dramatic and bloody marriage proposal, but


Ioomi beliefs are such that it would be a great sin against nature. The Ioomis say that the


marriage is destiny, that in this life the woman must marry the man who chooses her, just


as in the next she will marry his confidante. And the cycle continues.


The women, like the men, are divided into two groups, though unlike the men their


roles remain the same from lifetime to lifetime. A woman may either be a lali, the first


wife and the object of her husband’s lifelong devotion, or a lulani, a second wife and




Generation after generation, the lali is coddled and adored by her husband,


beginning with the love-sacrifice that proclaims publicly his love for her and serves as a


marriage proposal. Once married, the lali performs no household duties and is showered


constantly with gifts and affection. Her husband must provide her with whatever she




A husband naturally grows weary of serving his first wife by himself, so he soon


seeks a lulani, a second wife, to assist him with household duties and to bear children. Thereafter, a husband sleeps only with his second wife, who becomes a partner to him,


though never an object of devotion.


By all accounts, a husband’s relationship with his second wife is far closer and


seemingly more satisfying than his relationship with his lali, who remains an eternal flame


that burns symbolically but generates little heat. And yet a husband will speak in wistful,


glowing terms of his lali even as he stands holding the hand of his life partner, his lulani.


The life of a lali is perhaps the strangest of all. She lives like a queen in her own


house, every whim satisfied by her fawning husband, yet she is denied the satisfaction of a


loving partnership like that which exists between a husband and his second wife. Neither


may she have sex with her husband. Ioomi taboos strictly forbid a husband from having


sex with his lali; to consummate the relationship, they say, would surely despoil their love.


Yet rarely does a lali remain a virgin, because there is no law preventing her from sleeping


with any other man. Such behavior is usually frowned upon, but no man would dare get


angry at his lali, even if he caught her in the act. Many lali, in fact, relish this wrinkle in


the social fabric, satisfying themselves with a great many men in an Ioomi village, at all


hours of the day, in every possible setting, and using every position known to the Ioomis.


Pua and Pulani marry just three days later, while the oiled, well-preserved body of


Pua’s confidante receives the seat of honor, front and center.


As the ceremony concludes and the interested parties wander back to their huts, a


lali reaches out of the bushes and grabs the first handsome man she sees.


“A man may kill himself for love but a woman may not,” she says. “I must do


something for love.”


And then she takes his hand and pulls him into the bushes with her, laughing with delight, while behind them, just offshore, a man thrashes about and screams as he is slowly


disemboweled by frenzied sharks.


The priestess places the anthropologist’s palm over her bellybutton.
The anthropologist splays his fingers and presses them into the priestess’s soft
skin one at a time.
The priestess brings one knee up and puts her hand on the anthropologist’s wrist.
The anthropologist moves his face closer to the priestess’ neck and inhales
deeply. Then he exhales so his breath brushes her skin.
The priestess smoothes the top of the anthropologist’s foot with her big toe. She
looks at him as if she has something to say, even though she doesn’t.
The anthropologist allows the shape of her hip to mold his palm.
The priestess allows her lips to open slightly.
Their movements create a new swaying pattern in the hammock, while the
flashlight beam makes an elliptical pattern on the wall, an orbit disordered by
unexpected gravity.
She stops caressing his lower back and abruptly pulls away. “You only want to
sleep with me because you know you are going to die,” she says.
“That’s not true!” he protests.
“It’s my fault,” she says. “I never should have told you first.”
“No no, really it’s good that you told me. I would have been mad if you hadn’t.” “No you wouldn’t have. You would have been dead either way. But now I’ll
always wonder.”
“I’d fall for you anyway. I’d fall for you even if I were going to live forever.”
“Do you promise?”
“Promise not to kill me and then you’ll see.”
“So that’s it!” She folds her arms over her bare breasts. “You only want to sleep
with me to save your life!”
She turns to face the wall, and he follows, wrapping his arm around her. Now
he’s in the uncomfortable position of having to convince her that sleeping with her is
more important to him than his life. It’s really a game, a lover’s game, since they both
know his life has lost all meaning outside the moment. He has only now, and the
continual forking toward now’s end.
“When I was a boy, I dreamed of traveling the world,” he says. “Then I did it,
several times over. Now I wonder, even if you released me, where would I go?”
She puts her hand on his arm. “When I was a girl, I dreamed of someone telling
me stories.”
“That was me,” he says.
“The story I remember was full of light,” she says. “The words were light. I
could see that the words were light and that the light was all around me but none of it
was directly on me. The light shined everywhere but on me. When I moved, the light
moved, too. Once, I hid behind a tree and then popped my head out, trying to trick the
light into shining on me. I finally gave up, telling myself that the light was everything but
me, the light was the world except for me. Was that the story you told me in my dream?” “No,” says the anthropologist. “The story I told was about a whole world of
darkness that had just one small piece missing. The missing piece was felt but not seen, a
hole that all the world’s light seemed to drain into. If the world could find its missing
piece, it would then be complete and bathed completely in light. Meanwhile, the world
moved around its missing piece, slowly defining its location but still unable to see it, until
the missing piece became the most important part of the world.”
“Oh,” says the priestess. “I must have dreamed of another storyteller then.
The anthropologist traces her areola with his finger, then crosses gently over her
nipple, as if to cross it out and remind himself not to go further. He does anyway. He
lets his finger mimic a water droplet as it runs down her breast, then down her stomach,
where it pools in the soft hollow between her hips.
The priestess turns back to him. She allows her fingers to roll down his arm and
across his lower back in tiny rivulets.
“You see?” she says. “This is a kind of note-taking, too. Only better.”
The rain taps at the thatched roof and drips off into the mud. Notes are being
taken. One day, thinks the anthropologist, the rain will stop and the world will tell its
story once and for all. Meanwhile, there is only the desire for it.
He glides his fingertips over the priestess’s damp inner thighs and down beyond
the flashlight beam.
He hears only her breath now, her sighs and small gasps. This begins to unnerve
him, because it makes it seem their conversation has ended for good and the sequence
has begun that will lead inevitably to his death. He wants to touch her somewhere that will make her talk, dirty or otherwise. As his hands travel over her body, seeking the
magic spot, her breath only quickens, and words seems further and further from her
It occurs to him that he has roamed the world as he now does her body, searching
for the world’s g-spot, if by “g” it’s meant “gab” or “garrulous.” He’s had no better
luck with the world than he’s having now with the princess. The problem is that the
throes of desire make talking impossible, or unnecessary, or insignificant. Or maybe we
just forget.
It’s a problem with the construction of the world, he decides, and he wishes he
believed in someone or something to blame for this.
He can’t stop it from happening any longer. He’s gone too far. He’s been
pushing up against an invisible barrier, and now the barrier will either break or spring
him backward into oblivion. He wants it to break. He can’t think of a reason it
shouldn’t. He can barely think at all anymore. He wonders at how a world that once
seemed so full of possibilities has narrowed itself to just two. But mostly, he feels the
surge of desire that he will gladly let carry him to his death. He understands that this is
how you die; you fight it, you accept its inevitability, and then you finally crave it so
much you leap into it. There is nothing now he would rather do.


Fishing for Lost Souls


The Kamaks live on a permafrosted island, barren and colorless, where it’s easy to


believe you are alone on the planet but not in the universe. Even the Kamaks wonder how


they ended up there. Someone, they think, lost his way.


Then, nights when they gaze into the clear, cold, star-crowded sky, they’re


reminded of just how lost they are, and their sadness ripens into the profound ache of


those who have lost even themselves.


Long ago, when the earth was newly formed, the Kamaks lived far to the south,


where the air was warmer and heavier and the land softer and greener. Then, they say,


something happened that made the Kamaks and the land suddenly incompatible; either the


land grew hostile toward the Kamaks’ carefree and irresponsible living or the Kamaks


ceased to appreciate the land for its beauty and abundance. Whatever the reason, the


warmth began to burn, the air stuck in their throats, and the bright colors seared their


eyes. The Kamaks knew they had to leave.


The Kamaks’ souls had other ideas. “Not so fast,” they said. “We like it here.”


“But our stomachs reject the food and our skin angers in the heat,” said the


Kamaks. “We don’t care,” said their souls. “The heat pleases us, and the food means


nothing to us—we’re souls, after all, not bodies.”


The Kamaks don’t know why their souls became so belligerent. It may be that the


souls had begun meeting at night, while the Kamaks were asleep. And they talked. They


developed their own ways. They decided that what they liked and disliked did not always


agree with the likes and dislikes of Kamaks’ bodies, which felt more and more like prisons


to them. They developed their own music and dance and held their own spirited


celebrations and never invited their Kamak bodies, who slept stupidly through the orgies


of their own souls.


The Kamaks were scandalized by their souls’ rebellion. They had always believed


there were times—when they made love, said the romantics—that their souls spoke to


each other. But they could never have imagined their souls would sneak from their bodies


and throw parties at night.


The Kamaks had to decide whether to stay with their errant souls or leave for


cooler lands and thereafter go it alone. They pleaded with their souls.


“You can’t stay here! You belong to us!”


“What nonsense! It’s you who belong to us! We know we can live without you,


but the question you must ask is whether you can live without us.”


In the end, the Kamaks took the risk. They’d grown sick of the heat, the heavy


air, the overly rich food. The land was so green it hurt!


So they left, some of them weeping, and sought a new home. They came to an


ocean and sailed in boats. The Kamaks are only fair sailors, though, and they don’t have a


keen sense of direction, so they drifted endlessly, surviving on fish and rainwater, until finally they awoke one morning to find their boats locked in by ice. They stepped out and


hiked to the nearest rise.


“This is our new home,” declared their leader, his open hand trembling, his voice


quaking in the cold. The Kamaks looked at each other in frightened silence. Someone




They adapted, learning to fish through the ice in winter months, when only the


moon provided solace from the darkness, and to hunt reindeer and stay away from bears in


the summer months that were warmer and lighter and reminded them of their former


home, which some now wished they’d never left. They found they could survive without


their souls after all, but they also felt a growing ache that made them anxious and moody.


The Kamaks say they should have known what would happen next.


One day, in the dead of winter, they awoke in darkness and stepped outside their


ice-huts to find the sky littered with tiny lights.


“Our souls!” they cried. “Our souls have come looking for us!”


At first, the Kamaks now believe, their souls were probably thrilled to finally be


free of their fleshy wardens. Then, too late, they discovered the loneliness of disembodied


souls, the airy sadness of ghosts who moan and shuffle through the eternal night. The


souls longed for their bodies, just as their bodies longed for their souls. And so, in their


sadness, the souls went looking for their bodies. But Kamaks’ souls, like the Kamaks’,


have a poor sense of direction. Souls can only move upward and drift, and from so great


a height, the souls could not hope to see or hear their living bodies calling to them.


“We’re here! We miss you too! Please return to us and we’ll let you out at


night!” The souls did not answer back, and the dark winter skies were cold and silent as




The more unhappy Kamaks had long thought of setting out in boats for their lost


home to the south, but now they knew that would be useless. Their souls had gone


wandering, and the Kamaks would never feel at peace until they brought their lost souls




It used to be that the source and final destination of all Kamak souls was the Great


One, but now when a Kamak dies, his soul doesn’t know it. And while a soul is released


from the Great One when a Kamak is born, it never makes it into a Kamak body. Instead,


it gravitates naturally toward the other souls. And so each Kamak child is born without its


soul, destined to experience the same ache and emptiness as its parents.


Imagine the longing a Kamak feels when he looks into dark skies and knows that


somewhere in the galaxy of lights his disembodied soul drifts on an impossible search.


Imagine the long winter months when the souls drift above the Kamaks day and night,


leaving the Kamaks in a sad trance. They know they’d be better off with their eyes to the


ground, but even there the ice glimmers with the souls’ dim reflection. Imagine the long


summer months when the sun does not set, their souls don’t appear, and the Kamaks’


relief turns slowly to longing and then to concern that their souls have given up the search.


But the Kamaks are not without hope. In winter months, and in those months


between seasons when the stars come only at night, the Kamaks perform a simple, moving


ritual that translates as “fishing for souls.” When the sea is navigable, they set out in


boats, and when the sea is iced, they walk far out onto the smooth, desolate ice shelf.


They carry torches, the flames casting orange pools on the surface of the sea or the ice. When their leader determines they have reached the right place, one far enough from land


that there is nothing to obstruct the firelight, he holds up his trembling hand and


announces with a quaking voice, “Our souls may see us here.”


Then the Kamaks light the long arrows they’ve brought with them and slide them


onto their bows. The leader says a prayer:


Dear lost souls, we send you this light and heat
to help you find your way.
Lost souls! We miss you!
Please return to us and we’ll give you
the light and heat you desire,
even in the darkest months of winter.
Lost souls, we’ll let you out at night
to practice your own customs
and enjoy your celebrations.
We’ll make love in the day
so you may speak to each other
through our eyes and fingertips.
Dear lost souls, follow these flames back to earth
for our longing hearts to greet you.


And then the Kamaks shoot their flaming arrows into the clear night like flickering


beacons, while the ice glows a pale orange with streaks of reflected firelight.


Only the arrows return to earth, but Kamaks are certain that a day will come when


the lost souls will follow, falling from the sky like luminous rain and finally making the Kamaks feel home again. The Two Sighs of God


In the beginning was a God with no voice. Why, after all, would God need a voice


when She is alone in the universe? It took perhaps billions of years, say the Aap, but even


God grew weary of occupying the universe by Herself. She sat on a rock one day and


sighed, the first noise She had ever made. The noise surprised even Her. And then the


noise returned to Her in an echo from the Great Mountains at the far end of the universe


and She was pleased.1


After hearing the echo of Her first sigh, God entertained Herself with Her


newfound voice by humming and singing, and before long She found that Her voice was


so perfect it brought things into existence. God sang, and the stars formed in the sky.


The moon and the sun appeared. The animals sprang from the plants and the birds sprang


from the animals. She sang and created the Aap, the one creature who could sing back to


Her. And She was pleased.


Now the Aap keep singing, knowing that it is their first purpose on earth. They


1 Sometimes the echo of this sigh can be heard still, like distant music, when one camps alone in
the mountains and the wind is calm and every living thing holds its breath simultaneously.


sing when they are out by themselves, herding their goats or collecting berries. They sing


in pairs when they go off to the higher elevations for rarefied romantic interludes. They


sing as a village on special religious occasions throughout the year, their voices turned to


the sky in prayer.


The Aap also have plenty of musical instruments to accompany their singing or to


replace their singing when their voices grow tired. They have at least five different kinds


and sizes of drums, three stringed instruments, and eight kinds of flutes. Some of them are


made from the bones of long-dead Aap, who would consider it a great honor to continue


making music after death. The tooth flute makes its music by whistling through a set of


human teeth. The hip drum is formed by stretching an animal hide over two joined human


pelvises. You beat the hip drum with a radius and an ulna, the bones of a human forearm.


In each Aap household, there is a voice singing or an instrument playing all day


and much of the night. When an Aap reaches adolescence, he or she must leave home and


serve three years in another home as a pala. It is the pala’s duty to create suitable music


for all family occasions. Thus, a pala develops a repertoire of breakfast, lunch, and dinner


music, cooking music, cleaning up music, waking up and going to sleep music, bathing


music, etc. A pala may accompany an individual family member on a long journey to visit


relatives or on a short trip to relieve himself behind a rock.


During the three years of service, the young Aap is also allowed time alone to


compose a love song for a future husband or wife. Those with poor singing voices will


compose this love song on a musical instrument. Then, at the end of three years, the


young Aap is set free to search for a mate. Usually, he already has one picked out,


probably one who is herself near the end of her stint as a pala. He will go to her house and begin to sing his love song to her every night, and when she begins to sing her own


love song in return, he knows that she will come to him soon.


There is a legend told about one pala with the most beautiful voice ever heard in


the village. The family he served was the luckiest in the village, they say, and the husband


and wife and two small children lived in constant bliss, bobbing on waves of the pala’s


gentle voice.


At the end of three years, the pala, as desirable as he was, did not marry right


away. He had fallen in love with a deaf girl who cared nothing for him or his beautiful


voice. Night after night, he sang outside her window, knowing that she could not hear


him, but knowing, too, that it was all he had, since by looks alone he was no better than


average. Night after night, the village heard him, and they held each other and cried for


him. The deaf girl must have known he was there beneath her window, but she didn’t


grant him even a single look.


Then, one night, the tormented young singer had guard duty in the village, which


meant that he had to stay up all night and make sure the Aaps’ musical prayers never


ceased. For the Aaps, it is the worst blasphemy for the music to ever fall silent, which is


why, at any time of night, there are at least two Aaps working in shifts to perpetuate the


melody of Aap life.


The young man was paired with an older drummer that night, and they played the


early morning shift in the last hours before sunrise. At some point, the drummer was


silenced when he was attacked and killed suddenly by a snow leopard. The sweet-voiced


singer, tired and in a half-asleep trance from too many sleepless nights, apparently did not


notice the silence of the other half of his duo across the village. His voice grew weaker and weaker, until the final note fell to his chest. There was deathly silence, and no prayers


floating up to God’s ears.


The village apoli, a sort of musical director, was the first to notice the silence that


morning before the sun rose. The apoli ran out of her house and sang loudly and quickly,


as if to make up for the silence, and ran to the post of the drummer, where she found


nothing but a few drops of blood. Then she ran to the post of the singer, whom she shook


violently awake, all the while singing as loud as she could. The two exchanged horrified


looks, and the singer knew instantly what he had done. He stood up and left the village,


the apoli’s voice following him up into the mountains. He wept as he walked, his sobs the


only sound he could hear after a while. He climbed directly to the edge of a tall, east


facing cliff just as the sun was creeping over the horizon. There he clutched his chest and


leapt into the abyss, his final sweet-voiced shout resonating in the canyon, surviving him.


The village heard it, all except the deaf girl, and they sat up in their beds, clutched their


own chests, and cried.


God heard it, too, and that was the only other time in the history of the universe


that She sighed. The Town Fool


The Bhanari people believe that God lives among them in human form.


Unfortunately for God, they don’t have much respect for Him.


God is kicked, beaten, spanked, punched, spit on, laughed at, and wrestled to the


ground, much like an annoying younger brother. There are perks to being God, too: You


are served the best food, You sleep in the best hut with whomever You choose, and You


have elaborate ceremonies performed in Your honor.


The Bhanari believe their god was once a great god among gods. Then something


happened. Either He let the praise of the other gods go to His head and got sloppy, or He


went crazy, just as people sometimes do, and no longer could keep the earth in proper


operating order.


Most Bhanari believe the latter theory. “Just look around you,” they say. “One


day the world is calm and bright and the next a terrible storm comes up and threatens to


blow us into the sky. One year there is plenty of water for our crops, and the next there is


no water at all and many of our people are forced to eat bugs or starve. One day the


world seems like a beautiful place, full of joy and song, and the next it seems like a revolting error that we’re even here. Only a crazy god could manage such a world.”


The Bhanari think that their god, because of His insanity, was banished from the


realm of the gods and forced to live within His own creation. But if the gods thought of


this as a remedy, it didn’t work. While the other gods are off keeping other worlds running


smoothly, and also creating new ones, almost any of which would be a more hospitable


place to live in than this one, the Bhanari god is as crazy as ever.


They try to keep their God in a sane mood, which is why they feed Him and bathe


Him and do everything in their power to satisfy Him. Nothing works for long.


“Can you imagine creating a place where people get sick and die?” one of God’s


bathers asked me. “It’s as if He is a disturbed child who destroys His toys when He’s


done playing with them.”


They know it’s a bad idea in principle to slap God when He misbehaves--that


sometimes makes matters worse--but how can they help themselves when He screws


things up so badly?


“Last year,” one man told me, “my wife had her first child, but it died three days


later. Can you imagine a god who would create a new life and then kill it off in three




“What did you do?” I asked him.


“I marched into God’s hut and I beat Him until my fists bled. His cooks had to


pull me away. I believe it did some good. Last month, my wife had a baby girl and both


are happy and healthy.”


How do the Bhanari know who is God among them? He is always the craziest, the


one who does the most foolish things and gets into the most trouble. The Bhanari god is just as likely to take a male as a female form, but no matter which gender, the Bhanari god


is known to drink too much, to play tricks on people, to behave erratically and indecently


in public, and, in general, to disregard all standards of civility and common sense. He’s


the town fool.


When God dies, it is because He is so foolish that He can’t take care of His own


body. Of course, with a god, that doesn’t matter; He simply possesses another body.


Often, He will try to hide in the least suspicious body, knowing that when He is


discovered He will be whipped for the confusion He created by His death. In God’s


previous incarnation, She was a very fat woman Who liked to eat lemur tails and Whose


breath was like an evil wind. When that body died three years ago, God successfully hid


in the body of a small, thin, and seemingly modest man for two months before He was


discovered. He was walking through the village one day, on His way to trade for some


fruit to relieve His constipation, when a woman heard Him belch. No one had ever heard


this small, modest man belch before, and the woman was startled, until she realized that


the man’s body had been possessed by God.


“It’s Him!” she shouted, and she followed after Him, yelling and pointing Him out,


so that very soon the entire village knew His true identity. He denied it, of course, but He


always does. After a sound thrashing, He was restored to His luxury hut and given all the


cathartic fruit He wanted.


It’s not often one has the opportunity to talk face to face with God, and I couldn’t


pass it up. I asked God’s seamstress if I could have a talk with Him, and found access to


Him surprisingly easy.


“Try not to upset Him,” she said. “But don’t let Him misbehave, either.” I was led into the biggest hut in the village. There were two large rooms, one a


break room for His attendants and the other for God Himself. I approached Him with


slow steps. He was indeed a small man, dwarfed by the huge, throne-like wooden chair


He sat in. He had small, mousy eyes and straight dark hair. Two female attendants were


rubbing oils onto His pale, bony chest. A third stood at the ready with a drink in one


hand. One of His bathers was in the somewhat complicated process of bathing each toe


on His left foot. I introduced myself.


“Please pull up a mat,” He said. I did so, and sat at God’s feet, next to His foot




“You’re a foreigner,” He said. “Does this seem like nonsense to you?”


“I’m not here to judge,” I said. “I’m an observer.”


“It seems like nonsense to me,” He said. “I was completely ignored by everyone


else in the village, even My wife, and then some stupid woman claimed she heard Me


belch. Now look at Me. I’m a simple man, and I don’t like this kind of attention. I don’t


like the beating I take, either. I’ve got bruises all over my back from some woman who


came in yesterday, claiming I made her husband cheat on her.”


“You don’t believe you’re God?” I asked.


“I don’t believe in God,” He said.


One of His attendants stopped applying oil and pointed a finger in His face.


“Don’t say foolish things,” she said. “You know where that will get You.”


He ignored her. “I’m not even a Bhanari. I came here from the city looking to get


away from the congestion. Now I can’t leave. They’re right that the world is a crazy


place,” He said. “But it’s not My fault. I just live here.” “He may even believe that,” the foot-bather said, turning to me. “He’s that crazy.


But that’s no excuse. He’s the cause of the world’s problems, so He has to be taught a


lesson when He screws things up.”


“There’s beauty in the world, too,” I said, “so shouldn’t He get some credit for




“What do you call bathing His feet?”


“I sleep with Him,” said one of the women oiling Him. “And He’s not even a


good lover. That’s my sacrifice to the world.”


“There are perks,” said God. “But given the choice, I’d much prefer a quiet life.


I’d even go back to the city if they’d let Me.”


Just then a man burst into the hut. His eyes were wide with fury, and he stomped


up to God.


“You idiot!” he shouted. “I asked You to keep the pests away from my garden


and look what You’ve done.” He held up half a yam with insects crawling all over it.


Then he began to beat God with it, shouting, “Stupid, stupid imbecile! Can’t You do one


thing right?! Idiot!” and so on.


I slipped out, leaving God’s attendants to keep the angry man from injuring God


too badly.


The foot-bather came up behind me.


“Of course we know that the world is a beautiful place,” he said. “Every day I


walk through the woods and smell the trees and flowers, and I look up at the sky and


marvel at the warmth of the sun and the endless varieties of clouds. I pick up a clump of


dirt and marvel at the variety of little creatures there. And then I go home to my wife and children and I kiss each one of them, quietly giving thanks for the warmth and good


feeling that exists in the world. But, you see, I can’t say these things to God. He might


get the wrong idea. He might think that we approve of everything He does, and in our


experience, God only responds to negative reinforcement, and to that just barely.”


I then walked with the man through the village and the surrounding woods,


marveling at all the things he mentioned, basking in the warmth of a perfect day, one that


only a god could have created, until my new friend stubbed his toe on a tree root.


“I’ll kill that idiot,” he said. A Great Victory


A strong and mysterious ocean current washes east to west around the island of


the Shumi people. The current is notorious among sailors, both because its strength can


push an unwary captain off course and because of the junk that gets drawn into it, some of


which can ram and cause great damage to even a large ship. This “junk” can be both


natural and man-made, everything from trees to car parts. Sometimes things that aren’t


supposed to float will be drawn to the surface briefly, like whales coming up for air, before


they descend to the unknown depths, not to be seen again for many years. It is recorded


in the minutes of the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee that the crew of the freighter


Woosop claimed to have seen a World War II tank surface beside their ship and turn its


turret toward them before sinking again. What’s not recorded is that, following this


incident, the crew of the Woosop developed a compulsive interest in history, so much so


that they earned a reputation for raiding the history sections of libraries in their ports of


call. Several of the crew went on to become published and respected university historians.


It’s not known whether that WWII tank ever reached the island of the Shumi, but


many other things have, and the Shumi consider each of these a gift from the sun. In exchange, the Shumi give equivalent gifts to the sun by day’s end. The gifts are symbolic


of the mutual goodwill between Shumi and sun and also a reminder of the great alliance


that helped save the world.


Long ago, it is said, the sun and moon competed for control of the sky. The moon


in those days was equally as bright as the sun, and the almost constant daylight was


distressing to the Shumi, who found it difficult to sleep. Also, the efforts of the moon and


the sun to outshine each other made the temperature uncomfortably hot. The Shumi were


an irritable people in those days, and no one knew what to do about it.


Then, one day, the sun sent one of its winged messengers down to the Shumi to


request their assistance.


“If something isn’t done soon,” said the winged messenger, “both the sun and the


moon will burn themselves out. Then the whole world will wither and die in everlasting




The Shumi pondered this and were scared.


“Listen,” added the winged messenger, “the sun has no personal resentment


towards the moon. The sun only wants what’s best for the world.”


“Well, if the sun wants only to save the world, why doesn’t it simply shut itself


off?” asked the Shumi.


“That is not the way of the sun,” said the winged messenger. “Or the moon, for


that matter. Both are fighting for victory, and if either were to give up, the victory of the


other would seem empty—and so would the world.”


The Shumi couldn’t argue with that. Besides, they knew that the behavior of the


sun and moon was beyond their comprehension. “What is needed is a great victory,” said the winged messenger. “And such a


victory depends on your help.”


The Shumi felt no animosity toward the moon--at least no more than they felt


toward the sun. In fact they found both the sun and the moon rather irritating because of


the heat. Nevertheless, the Shumi decided to ally themselves with the sun.


The great battle waged for months. The sun and moon fought with light and heat,


and the Shumi fought with rocks, shells, and coconuts, all of which they threw at the


moon from battle stations high in the tallest palms. Eventually the projectiles took their


toll on the moon, whose light faded and whose weaknesses were exploited by the sun and


its assigns.


Finally, the moon was killed and the great victory attained. The Shumi felt proud


when they looked to the sky and saw the moon’s carcass and the battle scars left by the


Shumi projectiles, but they were saddened, too, because they had never harbored any ill


will toward the moon, at least no more than they had toward the sun.


So when the winged messenger descended to offer its congratulations, the Shumi


had a suggestion.


“We would like to honor the moon’s memory,” they said.


“You took those words from the sun’s mouth,” said the winged messenger.


After some negotiations, the Shumi came to an agreement with the messenger,


who then read it back to them: “Each day from now on, the sun will send you gifts, and


you will in turn send gifts to the sun. This exchange will remind us of our great victory,


and the goodwill generated by the exchange will be our way of honoring the moon, who


fought bravely and who never meant any personal harm to either the sun or the Shumi.” And so the sacred custom began. Each morning, several Shumi are sent out to the


rocky eastern shore of the island to collect the gifts the sun has sent them that day. Not


anything that washes up is a gift from the sun; the sun is unlikely to send them a coconut,


for instance, since the sun knows the Shumi have plenty of those. Same goes for seaweed,


palm fronds, and shells. But tires, buoys, splintered hulls, bottles and cans, rope, and


drowned dogs are clearly signs of the sun’s generosity. The Shumi collect these items,


usually one or two each morning, but sometimes as many as seven or eight when the sun


feels especially generous, and carry them back to the village, where they are put on display


for all to see and appreciate.


The elders then have the rest of the day to come up with a suitable gift.


Sometimes their response is as simple as a palm frond or an article of clothing. Other


times, they are challenged to find more complicated offerings, as when they once received


a crate full of chickens, two of which were still alive. On that day, the elders debated for


hours because they felt they must respond with something special. They decided on a gift


of three living snakes, a man’s infected pinkie finger, and the split ends from a woman’s


braided ponytail, which they bound together with vines.


Each sunset the gift or gifts are taken ceremoniously to the west end of the island,


down a wide sandy beach and far out into the shallow waters, where they are tossed


toward the setting sun. Cheers rise from the shore. Gifts have been exchanged; another


day has passed.


Unfortunately, the gift exchange is not the only consequence of the great victory.


As the Shumi walk in silence back to the village, the ghostly disk of the moon rises up


before them. Secretly, many feel a deep sense of guilt. None will say it aloud, but they suspect that they may have killed off the moon just to save themselves from the annoying


heat. In a moment of weakness, they let their irritability get the better of them. Now,


their daily tribute to victory and to the moon’s bravery feels like an empty gesture—not so


different, they suspect, from the emptiness the sun had warned would follow a quick




But there is one difference. Tonight, as it does every night, the pale moon will


haunt their dreams, glowing dully like the staring eye of a drowned dog. There is meaning


to it.


The Shumi wonder if this is the meaning the sun had in mind. The People Who Retreat from Themselves


I was drawn to the mountains by whispers of an empty village, overheard rumors


of a small, high plateau ringed by a natural wall of smooth, conical boulders. The huts, it


was said, formed another, concentric ring, and their doorways gaped inward at the flickers


of a dying flame. Yet it often happens that rumors and whispers dissemble when


confronted, running for cover and cloaking themselves in new skin--the secrets of the


universe are revealed only at a slant, a dim light that touches the corner of an eye, a


vanishing scent that leaves one hanging by threads of desire, the briefest and lightest touch


that may not be a touch after all—and so it seemed that the closer I got to the Mabas’


village, the less sure I was of its existence. When the whispers lost their shape and the


murmurs dissolved into wind, I prepared to move on. Then, at the last moment, an old


man with thin, muscular legs and milky hair approached me in the train station and begged


me to follow him.


I did so for four days on a treacherous and nerve-shattering journey. At the


outskirts of town we hiked briefly through a dense jungle, pulling leeches from under our


collars and hacking away vines and snakes as we followed a path that only my guide could see. When the terrain soared we climbed three days without equipment. At night, we


bivouacked on tiny ledges while bitter winds and restless dreams urged us toward the




Except at the most harrowing moments, my fears were skillfully diverted by my


guide, who in that week told me all he knew of the Mabas, unburdening himself, it


seemed, of a lifetime of secrecy....


The Mabas once lived in the long valley where the city now sprawls. Centuries


ago, as the young city grew toward and then around them, the Mabas were slowly forced


from their homes or pressured to change their customs to better fit in. But the Mabas


were fiercely independent; they stuck to their ways as though waging a battle, even when


the city people made fun of them, of their overly bright and colorful clothing, the child-like


sound of their language, the shameless movements of their seductive walk.


So the Mabas began a retreat that continued for many generations and which some


say led to their inevitable demise, but which others--those who believe in the indomitable


spirit of humankind or perhaps are overly sensitive to the sadness of loss--say allowed the


Mabas to live on. Whichever the case, the Mabas were tired of the ridicule and


determined to maintain their traditions, so they moved themselves farther and farther up


into the mountains. Adapting to the new environment was difficult at first: they were


short of breath; they had to develop a taste for new foods; they had to add a warm lining


to their showy attire.


Many did not survive those early years. Yet the Mabas were satisfied that they’d


saved the important features of their culture from ridicule and eventual loss. High in their


hidden villages, in the gray and white setting of the upper climes, they wore the bright colors as they had before, spoke their beautiful, child-like language, and walked with the


pleasing rhythms of sexual foreplay.


They did not forget the ridicule of the city, however, even as the generations


passed, and they worried it would happen again. Year after year, they would peer over


the side of the plateau and observe how the growing city stretched its hands into the jungle


and clawed through the trees. Someday, they knew, those hands would grasp the rocks


and pull themselves up the side of the Mabas’ mountain, or else dig at its base until the


mountain itself collapsed. Either way, the Mabas would one day be back in the midst of


the city, this time with no escape up a mountain; they’d be forced to assimilate with the


city-dwellers or be ridiculed forever.


When the city finally grew to the base of the mountain, the Maba elders reached a


decision: they would send some members of their tribe into the city to spy on the city


dwellers and learn their senseless and unusual customs. The Maba pilgrims would then


report back to the village and teach the other Mabas these customs. That way, when the


Mabas were once again surrounded by the city, they would know how to fit in and avoid


ridicule but in the privacy of their own dwellings would practice their true customs. This


time the Maba retreat would take a different form, from public life to private, from open


expression to collective whisper. They would create their own ghetto whose invisible


barriers would protect, they hoped, as the mountain heights once did.


The Maba pilgrims descended the mountain and quickly immersed themselves in


city life. They studied its strange customs so diligently and imitated them so precisely they


had to struggle not to laugh at each other in public, at least at first. Then, after four


months, they returned to the mountain and found they had trouble relating to their own people. Many of them could not bring themselves to return to the old ways, and one


went so far as to ridicule his old clothes as garish, and then blush with shame when a


beautiful Maba woman walked past seductively. An elder cuffed him: “This is your


village! Don’t forget!” The others looked on in shock and fascination.


The pilgrims did return to their old ways, but only in public. Secretly, they


continued the ways of the city dwellers, and because many Mabas were fascinated by the


city customs, they approached the pilgrims in private. “Teach me the new ways,” they


whispered. “Teach me to walk like I’m smashing ants.”


So it happened that the elders’ plan turned against them. Soon, many of the


Mabas were outwardly practicing the old customs but behaving like city dwellers in the


privacy of their huts or out on the mountain paths in small groups, where they changed


into homemade replicas of city clothes, walked the graceless, mechanical city walk, and


talked what little they knew of the city talk, chattering endlessly the same few city phrases


and laughing overly loud, in city fashion. A secret movement had hollowed out Maba


society, leaving an increasingly ironic shell of meaningless rituals and customs.


When this became known to the elders, they saw that the dirty hand of the city had


already reached up the mountain and seized their village around the neck, and that it had


been by their own invitation.


A choice had to be made, then, either to save the village they’d grown to love or


to save the customs that defined them as a people. For the elders, the decision was


simple: their people must abandon the village. “Go down to the city and live among the


city dwellers, as many of you have long wished,” they said. “There, you will learn the


customs of the city and behave in every way so as to blend in with the city dwellers. If you find you prefer those customs, then you are to ignore the customs of your own people


and renounce them forever, as you are no longer a Maba. If you find that you yearn for


your old customs then you are to practice those customs by yourself or with other Mabas


in the privacy of your dwelling. Under no circumstances may you expose the Maba


customs to public ridicule.”


The elders hoped that once the thrill of secrecy was removed from the city


customs, most Mabas would return to the old ways, and the ones who didn’t would no


longer threaten to expose the rest of the village to the city ways. Only by joining the


enemy could they one day hope to retreat safely to the old village, having purged


themselves of spies and traitors, leaving the faithful few.


So it was that the Mabas retreated from their village--and from themselves, it


seemed to some--and headed down the mountain in small groups, so as not to attract


notice. Once in the city, they did as the elders had told them, and even the elders did their


best to blend in with the city dwellers, though they struggled inwardly with humiliation


and despair.


They left their village as it stood, hoping one day to return there for good and


meanwhile setting aside one week each year when they would return temporarily and


practice their old customs in the open. At the end of the first year, the majority of the


Mabas did return and enjoyed the festival, the renewal of friendships and ancient cultural


bonds. But with each succeeding year, fewer and fewer Mabas returned to the village. To


many, the festival seemed less and less a celebration and more and more a relic, the bright


old clothes now costumes, the musical language a child’s song they were too old to sing,


and the seductive walk a shameful habit they’d worked hard to overcome. The elders finally sensed this, too, and with trembling voices ordered that the


festival no longer be held, since the Mabas had now begun to ridicule their own culture,


succeeding far more effectively than the city dwellers could at dissolving the meaning of


the most time-honored Maba traditions. The elders understood that Maba culture, if it


survived at all, would never resemble what it had.


For a while, the old village was used as a meeting place for far-flung Mabas


seeking a mate, but the arduous climb proved too much, and soon the village was all but


forgotten, the retreat seemingly final.


“Today,” said my guide, “there are no Mabas that practice the old customs. Not


one, not even in private. But the Maba ways survive in uncertain and handed-down


memories, images that bear just the slightest resemblance to the truth, and there are Mabas


who pass on those images, describing them as best they can but never very well, often


speaking only on their deathbeds to children and grandchildren. The Mabas live on, even


if each generation knows a little bit less, their memories less and less sure until they are


little more than feelings. These memories are all that is left of the Maba customs, and the


memories retreat as the Mabas have always done. And the Mabas do not visit the old


village because none of them knows the way there. It is an idea to them, a distant home


they can reach only through the vaguest recollections. That, I think, is for the best,


because I have thought much about the Mabas and see now that it was never the bright


clothes that defined them, never the child-like language or the sexy walk--all these things


have only provided the Mabas with something to retreat from. That is what Mabas do:


they are people who retreat from themselves.”


At last we pulled ourselves over the boulders and jumped down into the Maba village. I’d expected a ring of crumbling huts, maybe only foundations. Instead, the huts


were as sturdy as if they’d just been built, and a small flame still flickered in the central


firepit. There was even a little garden with vegetables almost ripe. Inside the huts, there


were bowls and cups and cooking utensils laid out neatly, and sleeping mats rolled up in


the corners. The effect was eerie, as though some yet unknown disaster had just occurred,


or was about to.


When I circled back to the center of the village, I found my guide building a fire.


“You are a Maba,” I said, understanding finally.


He looked at me without expression. “I’ve kept this village all my life, knowing


the Mabas would not return, but also knowing that they often think of their village and


draw meaning from its memory, even if the memory is vague and pales with each


generation. The memory must resemble the village; if the village crumbles so does the


memory, and the memory is what makes us Maba. So I once thought. Now I know I was




And then he asked me to start down the mountain ahead of him so that he could


circle the village a final time.


I descended a short way down the path, imagining the solemn actions of my guide


-tending the garden one last time, blowing dust off the bowls, repairing the huts, feeding


the fire--and believing that he had given me the greatest honor, he had shown me his


village so that I would care for it as he once had. But when I paused to look back, I saw


that I’d been fully mistaken. Pillars of flames began to rise above the conical rocks and up


over the high peak of the Mabas’ mountain; the village slowly dissolved into smoke, and


the smoke dissipated into the wind. I waited for my guide, watching the gray smoke thin and fade, until I at last


understood that he had retreated, too.


My first thought was that my guide had ensured the survival of Maba culture;


without any physical evidence of its existence, it could now be certain of a safe and steady




But then, if he wanted the Mabas to retreat forever, why did he tell me their story,


knowing I would write it down?


Because now the Mabas have retreated beyond the reach of clawing hands and


prejudice. Now they exist only on paper, and the paper is a shield that hides their final


retreat. Actors


You know there is something unusual about the Pamoot people as soon as you


approach their village, which sits on a green peninsula of land surrounded on three sides


by desert. Groups of men and women come running out to meet you on the path. You


are hesitant and afraid, even though their faces are beaming with smiles. The Pamoot clap


you on the back and rub your shoulders, saying, “We’re so glad you’ve returned, my


friend. We thought you’d forgotten your old friends.”


“You must be mistaking me for someone else,” you say.


“You old jokester,” says one man. “Come eat with us. Your wife will leap for joy


when she sees you. She is as beautiful as ever.”


When you enter the village, there is indeed a beautiful woman there who claims to


be your wife. She puts her arms around your neck and looks deeply into your eyes. “I


have missed you,” she says, and kisses you softly on the lips.


You have a difficult decision to make then. Do you try to correct them at the risk


of alienating yourself from the tribe? And to anger people with such nervous energy might


be dangerous. Rather than rebuff the entire tribe, you play along. Which, you learn later,


is exactly what the Pamoot expect. Though slightly nervous, the Pamoot seem like happy people, by appearances,


anyway. Most of them have big smiles on their faces and laugh easily. But sometimes


their smiles seem like stage smiles and their laughs like stage laughs--a little too big to be


believable, a little too much for real life.


You play your part and become husband to a beautiful Pamoot woman who treats


you in every way as though you had left some years ago on a long journey and promised


to return. She calls you Bahno, and at night she draws her long, delicate fingers across


your cheek and whispers in your ear, “Bahno, I missed you so. Tell me how much you


still love me.”


And you have no choice but to respond, “I love you as much as always, Alani.


I’ve never loved you more.”


In conversations with other Pamoot you begin to grasp the willfulness of their


convictions. One day, you go walking with one of several men who claim to be the village




“We’re glad you’ve returned, son,” he tells you, putting his arm around your


shoulders as a father does to his son. Then you stop at the edge of the desert and gaze out


at the endless expanse of sand broken only by small clumps of scrub. “As I stand here


with you, I recall with joy the moments of your youth, when these waters teemed with fish


and you and I fished together in the boat of my grandfather.”


You stare at the sand, trying to understand him. “I remember,” you say.


“For old times’ sake,” he says, “let’s you and I sail to the island of the Pamat and


check in on our distant relatives there.”


As your “father” readies the “boat” for the next day’s journey, you see a woman in the village with her arms cradled as though holding a baby. She lowers her head and coos,


rocking her arms and smiling.


“What are you holding?” you ask her.


“Bahno!” she says. “Did no one tell you I had a child while you were gone?”


You shake your head.


“Would you like to hold her?” She stretches her arms out toward you, and you’re


forced to oblige. You pull the invisible baby to your chest.


“Mm. Heavy,” you say.


“She’s growing quickly,” she says. “She’ll be big and strong like her father.”


“May I ask the father’s name?” you say.


She looks at you quizzically. “Bahno,” she says, shaking her head and smiling. “I


thought you’d recognize the face of your own child.”


You nearly drop it.


“Oh! Be careful with her!” The woman pulls your invisible daughter from you


and holds it to her shoulder. “You’ve upset her, Bahno. You should be more gentle!”


Then she walks away, leaving you agitated and speechless and feeling strangely guilty for


having cheated on Alani. Though you tell yourself that none of it’s true, you’re beginning


to have doubts.


The next morning, the man who claims to be your father comes to get you in your


hut. You walk with him to the edge of the desert.


“Hop in, Bahno,” he says.


There is nothing to hop into, but by this time you’ve figured out the game, so you


step into an imaginary boat and sit down in the sand. He laughs at you. “We’ll never get anywhere in that position,” he says. He steps


in beside you and helps you to your feet. You then begin walking out into the desert.


“Brings back good memories, eh?” says your “father.”


You walk for two hours and begin to think this man is leading you into certain


death. Your throat is burning with thirst and your skin feels like it will melt off your


bones. Finally, you come to a village in a little oasis.


“The island of the Pamat,” says your “father,” pointing.


The village is the most depressing sight of your journey. The people there are


gaunt and starving. Listless children hobble around with bellies swollen from hunger.


Many of the adults are all bones and sunken eyes. Yet most of them still manage to smile,


almost as broadly as the Pamoot.


One man approaches you as you enter the village. He is older, nearly bald, gray


skin hanging from his bones.


“Balah!” he says and hugs your “father.”


Balah turns to you and says, “You remember your Uncle Gee, Bahno?”


“Of course,” you say, smiling. You’ve grown more comfortable with this game of


pretend. Too comfortable. But you don’t hug him for fear his bones might crumble.


After a few minutes of friendly conversation, your “father” announces he is going


to seek out other relatives.


“We’ll join you shortly,” says Gee. “Bahno and I have a little catching up to do.”


When you are alone with him, your “uncle” says quietly, “It’s sad the way they


delude themselves.”


You’re startled. Here at last is someone who can fill you in. “You understand what’s going on?” you ask.


“Of course,” he says. “You must be one of those scientists who come out here


occasionally to study the strange customs of the Pamoot. As usual, the Pamoot pretend


you are someone else. This man, who mistakenly believes he is my brother, also


mistakenly believes you are his son. But I know from my own visits to the Pamoot village


that this man’s real son disappeared years ago. He’s been waiting for a stranger. And I


suppose you’ve been claimed as a husband by his daughter-in-law, too.”


You nod. It’s all coming together now.


“It’s tragic, really,” says Gee. “The woman, like all the Pamoot, believes she can


make something real just by saying it’s true. They live a fantasy life. But you must admit


they’re good actors.”


“Excellent actors,” you say. “They’ve led me to play along, and I’ve even caught


myself believing it’s all true!”


“Careful,” says Gee. “Don’t be drawn in too deeply. You might forget yourself


and never return home.”


You visit with other Pamat, supposed relations of yours. Everyone is friendly, and


no one seems bothered by the starvation and poor health of the tribe. You try to return


smiles, but your heart aches too much at their wretched condition. You feel helpless, and


you wonder if you’ll ever be the same when you do return home, wherever that might be.


“We should return before dark,” Balah says finally.


“Oh, but you must stay for the feast,” says Gee. “We have a pig roasting right


now. It will be a great celebration in your honor.”


“We really can’t,” says Balah. “You know how unpredictable the sea is. We should return while it’s calm.”


Your Pamat relatives reluctantly say their goodbyes. As you walk through the


village, you see the fire they’ve started for the feast. Beside the fire, a skeletal, starving


man with diseased skin turns the handle on the spit, slowly roasting an imaginary pig.


“It’s tragic the way these people delude themselves,” says Balah, shaking his head


at the heartrending sight.


You look at him, shocked and confused, no longer sure who to believe, including


yourself. You say no more.


You cross the “sea” with Balah and return to the Pamoot village, where you find


there’s been a skirmish with a rival tribe.


“Look what they did to me with their spears,” says one man, raising his shirt to


show you his stomach. It is smooth and uninjured.


“I see you fought bravely,” says Balah. “You will be rewarded, but only after you


get that deep wound treated.”


The man smiles and runs off to see the medicine man.


You realize that night you’d better leave before it’s too late. You already have a


wife, a lover, and an imaginary child. Balah has even promised to give you some


governing responsibilities in the village. You feel yourself getting entangled in village life,


as though the Pamoot have cast a net of imaginary relationships to trap you there. And


then you see something that confirms your decision. At the victory celebration that night,


there is a Caucasian man dancing among the Pamoot. He dances just as well as the


Pamoot, as though he’s been there a long time. You ask him his name.


“I am Nabolo,” he says, revealing a French accent. “Husband of Beela and son of Byat and Gani. I, too, am glad you’ve returned, Bahno. Welcome home.”


He hugs you and then returns to his dancing.


You tell Alani the next morning. “I must leave the village to go hunting,” you say,


because you don’t have the heart to tell her the truth.


Her eyes widen and a tremor passes through her. “I’ll wait for you,” she says.


“I’ll think of you,” you say.


She follows you a little ways down the path.


“I’ll miss you, Bahno,” she says, smiling widely even as her tears fall.


Your heart tightens, and a few steps down the path, you begin to cry, too, and


then you understand that not everything about the Pamoot is imaginary.


Their breaths return to normal, and then to something slower than normal,
accompanied by the pleasing feeling they are just barely alive. The flashlight has fallen
to the floor, its beam gone dim. It is a long time before either of them have the desire to talk again. The priestess
resists the urge to cry by speaking first.
“Any last words?” she asks, sniffing once.
The anthropologist sighs out the last of his bodily tension. “I also have a
confession to make,” he says.
The priestess is disappointed by this, believing that he has fallen into the standard
pattern of doomed anthropologists, confessing their wrongs, pleading for forgiveness,
groveling before anyone who’ll listen. She’d thought he was different.
“I made up all my stories,” he says.
She isn’t sure what to make of this. “They’re all lies?” she asks.
“You could say that. But they’re the best I could do with a few small pieces of
The priestess doesn’t seem to believe him, so he opens his notebook and flips
through the pages for her. Most are blank. A few have drawings of dancing stick
figures. A few have random scratches that even in the dim light do not seem to constitute
a written language.
“And all those times I leaned against a tree and seemed to be taking notes, I only
pretended to take notes because I liked to watch you dance,” he says.
A tear darts down the priestess’s cheek. “It’s a shame that you slept with me,”
she says.
He wipes the tear with his thumb. “I don’t mind it, really. It was worth it.”
“You were willing to die just to sleep with me?”
“Yes,” he says, because now he knows it’s true. “Then it doesn’t matter that your stories were lies. I believed them anyway.”
“That’s why you are the priestess.”
She lays her head on his chest. A wave of heavier rain sweeps through the forest
and passes over them. For a few minutes, it’s useless to talk.
When the rain quiets again, the priestess stirs. “Are you finished collecting your
The anthropologist smiles and reaches for his flashlight. He bangs it against his
palm to get a new beam.
It is still dark, and the rain falls steadily.
At dawn, the last few drops of rain strike the top of the rain forest canopy. They
fall through the puzzle of leaves, rolling, spattering, diving, until at last they strike the
forest floor and vanish in the mud.
The warriors appear at the door again. The priestess turns her head away to hide
the tears.
“Take him,” she says, and the warriors grab the anthropologist and pull him out
of the hammock, leaving the priestess swaying by herself, facing the wall.
“I am a collector too,” she whispers softly.
He stops and looks back at her shoulder and her softly swaying hip. “Of what?”
“Anthropologists,” she says. “Because sometimes even a priestess forgets.”
The warriors yank him through the door. He is led out into a ceremonial clearing
where the villagers have formed a circle. Someone beats a drum. At the center of the circle is a block of wood, worn smooth on top and still wet from the rain. A tall man
stands casually next to it, his belly hanging over his loincloth. He is holding the
anthropologist’s machete, twisting it with his wrist, making lazy designs in the air. He
greets the anthropologist with a nod and a shy half-smile.
The warriors tie the anthropologist’s hands behind his back, then press him to his
knees in front of the executioner’s table.
The anthropologist feels the cool, wet wood against his cheek and smells the
plantains that have been mashed on this table in preparation for a feast. He closes his
eyes. The drumming stops. The executioner draws in a breath.
The anthropologist feels a very slight irritation on his head and neck that slowly
turns to warmth. He has time to open his eyes one last time, to see some small part of the
Though a pair of hands holds his head to the block, he is able to turn his eyes to
the source of the warmth. It is a ray of sunlight, the first he’s seen in weeks. Somehow
the tiers of tropical clouds have aligned their tiny breaks. Or else a vertical column of
wind has punched a hole. He wonders at his good fortune.
Just as the executioner’s machete—the anthropologist’s own—swings down on his
bared neck, the anthropologist smiles, knowing he is at last in the light, and that his body
will soon begin to dance.


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