Wayword Scribblers, 2
by Eland Robert Mann
The above table at CODE Patisserie & Plus in Ulaanbaatar is the very place where we sat and conducted our wayword scribbling.
For our second meeting Terry suggested in advance that we select an interesting news article on any topic and write a short story from the point of view of a real person featured in the article.
For as long as I can remember — even before my travels to the Serengeti and Brazil, and before my college years majoring in Latin American studies — one of my pet fascinations has been any story about reclusive jungle peoples that resist assimilation into the modern world and continue to survive in the same manner as they’ve done for millennia.
I bookmark any article I find on such recluse tribes, so when Terry mentioned the assignment I knew immediately the type of story I wanted to tell. In particular, I recalled the recent story of a man in Peru who was killed by an arrow shot by a native belonging to one of the last completely recluse tribes of the Amazon.
I reread the article, and quickly chose the real life narrator and angle with which I would approach the story. Digging deeper online, I found another article that offered more information about the incident. Links to the articles are below:
When later writing the short story, I was unnerved by the fact that my narrator was a real living person that likely had been affected by this incident, a fact which made me think twice about my narrator’s every thought and action — a decent way to write any piece of convincing fiction.
Here’s the story:
Diego Cortija, Spanish Geographical Society, Peru
It was a complete shock. I couldn’t believe the words, spoken through the satphone by my grad student embedded deep in the Peruvian Amazon.
Shaco the aged Matsigenka guide, who knew each bend of the serpentine Madre de Dios River better than any man alive. Shaco the gray-haired gardener, who tended a plot on a sunsoaked river island near the peaceful frontier village of Diamante. Shaco the gregarious friend, who was the only local to communicate with Peru’s most recluse tribe, the Mascho-Piro. Shaco the six days dead, a Mascho-Piro arrow through his heart.
I heard the news of Shaco’s death and immediately took a boat upriver to Diamante. There I visited his wife and family, who had retreated to the village out of fear after the arrow, propelled from the bush by a member of the isolated Mascho-Piro, had punctured Shaco’s heart. Diamante men had recovered Shaco’s body the following day, and after a well-attended ceremony they buried him in the manner of the locals.
I had trouble understanding the reason behind Shaco’s death.
He, the two grad students on my geographic expedition and I had been the last outsiders to see the Mascho-Piro, one of the few remaining recluse tribes of the Peruvian Amazon. They hadn’t been photographed for 30 years, until several months ago during the dry season when I snapped a group of young Mascho-Piro men with painted faces and loin clothes standing about the east bank of the calm Madre de Dios.
A stout member of the Mascho-Piro had hailed our motorboat then as I clicked away with my camera.
What does he say? asked one grad student.
‘Go away, idiots,’ said the other.
No, replied Shaco. He is asking for machetes.
We watched them closely as we passed and rounded a bend.
From speaking with the locals of Diamante, it was their opinion that Shaco wasn’t a bridge. He was just a local native, assimilated, who happened to marry a Piro woman and understand a bit of the Mascho-Piro language. He was a farmer on a mid-river island, only speaking or trading with the Mascho-Piro once a year or so. He wasn’t a missionary or an agent of progress, pushing the frontier jungle. He wasn’t an arrow propelled across the river into the heart of the Mascho-Piro.
Together the villagers and I mourned his loss over cups of masato, and wondered in silence about those unknowns that lurk in the bush, that eye one another from opposite banks. What chasm between them had made Shaco their casualty?
I had a talk to give at the Spanish Geographical Society in Lima the next week, so I was scheduled to depart Diamante the following morning on a boat heading downriver. Before I left the village, I made a visit to Shaco’s abandoned island. I wasn’t worried about a repeat attack, as the locals said there had been no reported sightings of the Mascho-Piro since Shaco’s death.
As the early morning sun rose above the treeline, I stood in the garden patch, weeds already beginning to sprout in the half-tilled ground. I looked across the island and the river into the dense foliage on the far eastern banks, retracing the arc of the fatal arrow with my eyes. In that moment I glimpsed what Shaco saw in the moments before his death, after collapsing in his garden patch, yards from a river eddy that swirled against the current. The eddy’s upstream motion gave that patch of river an emerald tint, an anomalous sight in the otherwise muddy Madre de Dios. Such a hue would be remarkable, if not for the surging, looping, ever-thickening mass of green closing in around us on all sides.
I could almost feel the arrow pierce my heart. And then I left that place.