Little Tiny Teeth
Peru: The Upper Amazon Basin, August 4, 1976
They knew, being Chayacuros, that the waking world, the world we think we see, is nothing but illusion. The real world, the true bonds between causes and their effects, is revealed only through the ritual drinking of ayahuasca. This they both had done under the ceremonial ministrations of old Chaya. The bitter brew had first purged and purified them, and then the Other World beings had come to guide them.
“They have killed all the plants in their own land, these white people,” the bird-headed spirit-helper had told them through the shaman’s mouth. “Now they come to destroy ours. And then the government will come and burn our village. It is up to you to see that this does not happen.”
They had agreed to undertake the task. For the last three hours, silent and unseen, they had been observing the three white men who had made camp not far from the village the night before and were now stirring. But in the true world, as in the false, there were separate realities; there was room for differences of opinion.
“I say kill them now.” Matsiguenga, the younger of the two, spoke in sibilant whispers, but he smote his naked, hairless chest with his fist for emphasis. “We have wasted enough time.”
The older man, Jabuti-toro, took his time replying, as befitted someone wiser. “No. They may not be from the government. They may be blameless.”
“So what? They are strangers; they have no relatives. Who would avenge them? Who would even know?”
They did not look at each other as they talked, for among the Chayacuro, for one man to look openly into another’s eyes is a deadly insult. They lay, propped on their elbows, peering narrow-eyed through giant, insect-eaten banana leaves and gnarled liana vines at the three men, who sat on the ground in a tiny clearing, their backs against a fallen tree trunk, breakfasting on manioc pancakes and cold coffee. Fifty feet further out, in a rough semicircle, lay another six Indians – younger men and boys, less skilled at hiding, and trailing, and killing, proud to be in the company of the two leaders and eager to learn from them. The youngest, and perhaps the most eager of all, Matsiguenga’s nephew Shako, was not yet twelve.
In La Cosa Nostra, the two leaders, Matsiguenga and Jabuti-toro, would have been known as “made men,” men who had murdered – “made their bones” – to prove their worth as members of the Family. In the equally elliptical language of the Chayacuro, they were kakaram, “powerful ones.” Their power derived from their success at assassination. Both had killed enemies. Both had taken heads.
They were dressed almost identically. Of anything that we would describe as clothing, they had only woven kilts of dyed cotton. But they did not think of themselves as naked. Heavy necklaces of jaguar teeth, boar tusks, nuts, and shells hung in layered profusion around their necks. Their faces were dyed orange-red with achiote, their chests painted in ancient designs with white clay. Sharpened quills of blue and green macaw feathers pierced their nasal septums, and thin bamboo tubes and more feathers ran through their earlobes. Their glossy, black hair had been carefully trimmed into neat bangs and tightly bound with headbands.
Beside them lay nine-foot-long hardwood blowguns, meticulously carved and hollowed out and lovingly polished. Around each man’s neck was slung a palm-frond quiver of darts from which dangled a small woven bag of cottonlike kapok. They were totally unafraid. The ayahuasca had made their bodies hard; they could not be harmed by others.
“I say again,” Jabuti-toro whispered forcefully. “We wait. We do not kill those who are not our enemies.”
Matsiguenga grunted his acceptance, but he had already made up his mind. The intruders would die. Jabuti-toro was getting old; he was more concerned about his wife and his four daughters than he was about protecting the village. His arutam – the soul that sustained and protected him and gave him the courage to fight – was leaving him; everyone could see that. He no longer had the stomach for killing. But Matsiguenga did. It would be up to Matsiguenga to teach the young ones how a man should act.
With the ayahuasca still coursing through his body, he could distinguish the future as if it were the present. Behind the lids of his closed eyes he saw how it would be. He would take the heads from the fallen whites, each with a single, slashing stroke of his machete. If Jabuti-toro wanted none, Matsiguenga would take all three, why not? He would run pieces of cincipi vine through their mouths and out their throats, and sling two of them over his back. The third he would allow young Shako to carry. Shako was impatient to take a head of his own, but he was still too young, too reckless, too out of control for that. Perhaps the honor of carrying a head would slake his thirst for blood for a while.
At the crossing of the River Yapo, where they had cached pottery jars, the shrinking process would begin. He would have Shako assist him. Shako was his sister’s son; Matsiguenga was responsible for his learning. Among the Chayacuro, it was the maternal uncle, not the father, who was responsible for the education of a boy. They would slit the skin on the backs of the heads, then slip out the skulls and put them in the river as gifts for pani, the anaconda. They would boil the skins in river water, dry them, and then turn them inside out to scrape away the “They are moving,” Jabuti-toro said. “They are leaving. We will follow them.” His voice hardened. “If they do not approach the hayo, we will let them go, do you understand?”
“And if they do?”
“Then they must be killed. But wait. Watch. They may not be what they seem.”
Indeed, they were not what they seemed. They were two brothers named Frank and Theo Molina and their friend Arden Scofield. A trio of adventurous, young Americans, they had no interest in hayos, the coca-leaf gardens that the people of the Amazon had grown for a thousand years but were now deemed unlawful by the Peruvian government. All three were promising Harvard graduate students in ethnobotany, the study of how the world’s peoples make use of local plants for food, drugs, medicine, clothing, and anything else. Since getting their bachelor’s degrees, Arden and Theo had continued at Harvard, working toward their master’s degrees, with specializations in South American flora. They had arrived in the Amazon only ten days earlier. Frank Molina – six years older than his brother and five years older than Arden and the most serious scholar of the three – had been living in Iquitos for the past ten months, completing the fieldwork for his Ph. D. dissertation on the Amazonian Indians’ use of Brunfelsia grandiflora, a member of the potato family, for curing gum disease.
But it was not this plant that these ambitious young men were after, nor any other medicinal botanical. It was Hevea brasiliensis – the rubber tree, and through it they meant to make a great deal of money.
In all its existence, the Amazon had known something resembling prosperity but once: during the rubber boom of the late 1800s, when the strange, new, bouncy substance was king. The finest rubber in the world came from Amazonian trees, and huge fortunes were made in the rowdy, knockabout jungle towns at either end of the great Amazon river, Manaus, Brazil and Iquitos, Peru. But the seeds of ruin – the literal seeds – had already been sown. An English botanist named Henry Wickham had smuggled seventy thousand seeds out of South America in 1870 and gotten them to Malaysia. Five years later, the new plants were being tapped, and in thirty years they had become great trees superior even to those of the Amazon. By 1913, Malaysia and Singapore were the new capitals of the rubber market. The Amazonian boom had gone bust.
But in the early 1970s the Malaysian plantations of the giant Gunung Jerai rubber conglomerate were having troubles of their own; their trees were being decimated by a vicious disease that was known as South American leaf blight but was capable of attacking Hevea anywhere in the world. As it happened, Arden and Theo, who followed such things, had heard from one of their professors about an isolated region near the junction of the Huitoto River and the Amazon, only about thirty miles upriver from Iquitos, where rubber trees grew that were remarkably resistant to the blight. Arden, the quickest-minded and most decisive of the three, had contacted Gunung Jerai to determine if they were interested in seeing some of the seeds from these trees, the location of which he sensibly kept to himself.
They were interested all right, enough to cover the costs of a three-week expedition to the Amazon for Arden and Theo, who would pick up Theo’s brother Frank in Iquitos. Gunung Jerai would pay two thousand dollars for a viable sample of one thousand seeds. If they proved on testing to be truly blight resistant, there would be another ten thousand dollars. And in five years, when the young trees were tapped for the first time, they would pay an additional one hundred dollars for every surviving, productive tree. The money was to be paid to Arden, who volunteered to split it evenly with his two partners.
The likely total was upward of a hundred thousand dollars, and it was as good as in their bank accounts right now. In Arden’s backpack was a net bag layered with gauze, in which nestled twelve hundred blight-resistant Hevea brasiliensis seeds. Collecting them had not been easy. In the Amazon, as almost nowhere else, trees did not grow in stands, but rather in widely scattered ones and twos, often miles apart. It had taken the three Tikuna Indians they had hired five days to harvest them. The Indians had been paid the equivalent of two American dollars a day per man, and had chuckled among themselves at the foolhardiness of the white men, who paid good money for things that anybody could go out and find just by walking around the jungle and keeping his eyes open.
“Let’s get going,” Arden said, standing up and hefting the precious backpack onto his shoulders. “If we get moving, we should be back in Iquitos by tonight.”
“Iquitos,” Frank said with a sigh. “Hot food, cold beer, showers…”
“Clean shirts, shaves…”
“Girls who wear clothes,” Theo put in with an eyebrow-waggling leer, and they all laughed.
It took only a few minutes to roll up and pack their hammocks and mosquito nets, and they were soon once again on the rough path – an old deer or capybara track, probably – that led back to the shore and the broken-down old Bayliner they had rented in Iquitos. Its outboard engine had coughed and stuttered worrisomely all the way up, and even died on them a half dozen times, but the way back would be easier. Iquitos was downriver. They could float back if they had to.
After just a few minutes, the path took them to a large, cleared, relatively orderly patch of head-high shrubs with bright, yellow-green leaves, tiny yellow flowers, and red, coffee-beanlike fruits.
At the entrance to it, Frank put up his hand. “Whoa, hold it. You know what this is, don’t you? It’s hayo. Coca. I think maybe we want to go around it.”
“Around it,” Arden said with an edge to his voice, “means around the swamps on either side of it. That’s a lot of extra ground to cover. I don’t know about you, but I’m bushed. And I want to have my dinner tonight in Iquitos. I never want to look at another piece of manioc.”
“Sure, me too, but we’re on the border of Chayacuro country here,” Frank said. “This could easily be theirs, and they’re not exactly as, shall we say, “hospitable” as our Tikuna friends. I’ve worked with them once or twice, and trust me, you don’t want to make them mad.”
“Our good Tikuna friend Tapi,” Arden said, referring to the Indian guide who had brought them this far and then returned home the previous night, “told us to just stay with the path, and we’d be back at the boat in a couple of hours. With the compass not working right, don’t you think we ought to just follow his instructions? You really want to chance getting lost again?”
“Well, no, of course not, but I think I could find the path again-”
“You think. Oh, that’s just great.”
“Look, Arden,” Theo said. “Frank’s got a point. We don’t want to mess with the Chayacuro. I like my head the size it is.”
“For Christ’s sake, what is it with you two?” Arden erupted. “It’s five o’clock in the goddamn morning. You think these guys have guards out this time of day, monitoring the hordes of people that come through here? They’re still asleep, which is what I intend to be at this time tomorrow.”