It has been hours, the small outboard motor pushing their boat upstream against the sluggish current of this unnamed greenish brown river. They are many twists and turns away from any line existing on official maps. By now he has no real idea whether he is in Bolivia, Peru, or Brazil. Tranh simply has to trust in his crew. He doesn't like it, but this element of unknowable risk is part of what he is being paid for.
There have been so many shades of green, from violet-tinged green leaves, greeny-blue wet vines . . . at other times pale green fading into gray green shadows, or yellow green glistening in the sun. Sometimes in the undergrowth the vines obscurely squirm, and huge flowers unfold, cerise or marigold-yellow, vermilion, fleshy blossoms amid an empire of insects and all manners of birds.
Tranh is stoic, as are the two European slaves here in exchange for James Patrick Hurt, the British anthropologist who walked away into the Peruvian jungle some six years ago. The story goes that Hurt, 27 years old at the time, just left his group's campsite, moving deeper and deeper into the jungle, satisfying his desire to explore unknown regions, seeking forgotten ruins, until he was taken captive by some nameless tribe.
Hurt was not killed, but kept as a slave. Now, finally, after two unsuccessful expeditions bankrolled by his wealthy relations, there has come a rumor that a white male, perhaps Hurt, has been sold to a tribe more amenable, more agreeable, who although difficult to find are not impossible, and so Tranh is here to see what he can do.
This tribe is neither completely inaccessible nor opposed to commerce. They have taken hostages and then returned them in the past. Part of the purchase price, in addition to the two young white males, includes machetes, salt, t-shirts and cold hard cash. Of course it is the matter of the replacement slaves which renders the deal so shady, most likely illegal, no matter how willing these young men seem to be. Tranh is uneasy, but this part of the transaction is beyond negotiation. The homosexual submissives are from Belgium and Germany. They are slender, reasonably good-looking, and—as specified—natural blondes. Allegedly this adventure constitutes each candidate's lifelong fantasy fulfilled.
The village they arrive at after a long slow bend in the river is a ramshackle collection of rundown, unpainted houses and longhouses, some partly constructed of corrugated tin. There is a great deal of rattan involved, bamboo, bleached dead wood, wire and string.
The afternoon temperature is such that, without wind, most residents as well as their dogs sleep or any rate take a siesta. A few chickens stagger about. There is one flaming orange somewhat the worse-for-wear parrot mumbling unintelligibly now and then from his perch.
The boat's motor has been turned off; they drift to the meager beach. Some villagers now begin to gather, often wearing faded, out of fashion t-shirts and little else. The men are almost all squat and muscular, with penis-sheaths, wearing knives, some with bones horizontally perforating their septa. They are variously tattooed and scarred. The women often sport black fedoras but do not cover themselves in multicolored shawls the way women do in Lima, Quito or Guayaquil. At least today, in this heat, these females are most often topless, with floppy, sagging pancake breasts, breasts however ornamented with white or pink or orange painted stripes. Both sexes tend to have painted markings decorating brown cheeks, wooden labrets through lips, and so on.
Tranh is American, born and raised in Houston. His parents were "boat people." The consulting firm he works for was warned not to send a white man here.
He is directed now to a large central open-air structure, along with the translator, who does not speak this tribe's dialect but some intermediate tongue. The pilot of the boat, who carries an AK-47, is nominally in charge of the European slaves.
The headman appears, looking as if he has just arisen from a nap. He and Xoao, the translator, exchange greetings and commence some sort of leisurely conversation.
The new arrivals are welcomed, invited to come in and recover from their journey, urged to recline on hempen pillows strewn around in the dirt.
The headman smiles, a smile which reveals that he is missing some teeth. He tells a story, which Xoao translates as:
"There was a two-headed bird who lived in a tree near the river. He had two necks, two heads, but just one stomach. One day the bird was wandering near the river and one head saw a beautiful golden fruit, which appeared so delicious at the first sight. He started eating the fruit with great pleasure and said it was the most delicious fruit he had ever eaten. Hearing this, the other head said, Please let me also taste this wonderful fruit you are praising so much. The first head replied, You know that we only have one stomach, so whichever of us eats, the fruit will go to the same stomach. I'm the one who found it. So I deserve the right to eat it.
"The other head became silent and disappointed after listening to such an answer. This kind of selfishness on the part of the first head bothered him very much. The next day, the second head found a tree bearing poisonous fruits. He took the poisonous fruit and told the first head, You deceitful fellow. I will eat this poisonous fruit and avenge the insult you have done to me.
"The first head yelled, Please, please, do not eat this poisonous fruit! If you eat it, both of us will die, because we have only one stomach to digest it! The other head replied, Shut up! As I have found this fruit, I have every right to eat it. The first head started weeping, but the other head didn't bother and ate the poisonous fruit. In the consequence of this action, the two-headed bird died and fell out of the tree."
Tranh nods, though what he mainly feels is puzzlement, but the headman seems pleased by his response. Or he simply enjoys speaking of the two-headed bird.
Some kind of a beverage is offered. It is alcoholic, and tastes of . . . no flavor Tranh has ever put in his mouth before. He doesn't like it much. The association it calls to mind is garbage, rotting papayas and some dead animal he once smelled in a backyard. Nevertheless he smiles and drinks some more.
The headman laughs. More of the nasty beverage is offered. Everyone drinks. There is some intoxication fairly soon. The headman slaps Tranh between the shoulder blades.
The new slaves are stripped, and then driven around in a wide circle by some wizard or shaman in a complicated get-up while women and children in particular revel in the spectacle. The wizard uses a green birch-rod to strike the young men on their buttocks and thighs, leaving raised red welts.
One of these young men had written, on a website, "I am a masochist prepared for total, permanent, No Way Out slavery. To be trained and used as a non-human beast of burden. Have no friends or family—can disappear without a trace. My limit is obviously death etc."
Tranh thought it possible the use of 'etc' was a show of wit. But he wasn't positive, given the differences in language. He had made no effort to particularly communicate with either slave during the trip.
The other boy, from Brussels, had given his name as "dirthole." Lower-case.
Now the headman shares a conspiratorial look with Tranh and says, "The mantis is trying to reach the cicada, to devour it, unaware that behind it is an . . . uh, oriole stretching its neck to swallow the mantis. And the oriole does not realize that there is a slingshot aimed at him. All are intent on what is in front, blind to the danger behind."
The translator stammers during some of this. Maybe he's having a difficult time. Or simply making things up. "Oriole" did not seem quite right.
Tranh sits with Waldemar the boatman and Xoao. However foul the local brew, they continue to imbibe.
The headman says, "But surely you want to see your slave!"
Tranh nods. The headman claps his hands and some shorter-than-usual tribesman, perhaps a dwarf, leads in a white man by a rope tied around his neck. This man has been painted, the left side of his face and body black, the right side red. It looks as if this was done some time ago and the paint is gradually wearing off. There are other miscellaneous decorative touches, such as a horizontal line of five small yellow dots beneath the orbit of his left eye. Three lines atop each other above his right nipple. He is wearing a penis-sheath and nothing else. There is paint in the short rough-cut hair of his head but there is no mistaking the blondeness underneath.
He is brought to his knees before Tranh.
"James? James Patrick Hurt?"
There is no response.
The headman shrugs expressively and then makes the universal pantomime of fingers becoming scissors to sever the waggling extended pink tongue.
The headman, through Xoao, says, "We did not do this to him. They did it to him on the mountain. It's better this way, he says," Xoao goes on. "Now . . . he wants to be paid the rest of the price."
"Very well," Tranh says, slowly. "Bolivian or Peruvian?"
The headman says, no translation necessary: "Bolivianos."
Tranh counts out the banknotes until the headman is satisfied. Banco Central de Bolivia on each bill. An old bald guy with a thick white mustache is pictured on some. Various hues are employed.
Soon food is brought in. Roast guinea pig, warm potatoes, pig's feet, tripe, peppers in three colors and yellow corn.
Tranh says to Hurt, "You are going home now. We are taking you home."
But he is unsure of the response. He compares this painted face to the memory he has of a photograph featuring a smiling youth in tennis whites. There seems little doubt about the identification, but he has no idea what James Hurt has been through. It all began, though, with him walking away on his own. That much was clearly established long ago.
Hurt remains on his knees, with his eye downcast, and will only accept food if it is thrown on the ground.
It is evening, and there are entertainments for the guests.
First there is a dance, in which almost everyone in the village stands quivering in place, whereupon several boom boxes are turned on. They are not quite in sync, but the loudest one features (as they all do) a cassette of what sounds to Tranh like Haitian voodoo drumming. He wonders if these people have ever possessed drums of their own, or whether they just like this tape, this performance, it's a Hit.
The lively drum pattern has an emphatic pause after about ten seconds or so, and this pattern, followed by the pause, is repeated again and again. There are whistles or crude flutes in the music as well as what sounds like the "off" beat punctuation of a piece of iron (or some kind of metal, not really a bell) being struck hard.
At each pause, the dancers stamp their left foot; then at the next pause, their right. This goes on and on. Tranh finds it oddly compelling for a while.
Then in a few minutes he is bored.
The second entertainment, maybe an hour later, features two pubescent boys, each with his right arm tied behind his back, engaging in a left-handed knife fight. One boy wears a yellow Pink Floyd t-shirt, the other's shrunken tee is pale blue and has something in white Arabic script. There is soon a lot of blood.
The men of the village hoot and holler enthusiastically while they watch. Tranh figures out that there has been heavy betting on this match.
It grows late.
Waldemar approaches Tranh at some point with embarrassment and asks him if he has any "spare" condoms. Actually, yes. Tranh keeps a few in his wallet at all times . . . because you never know.
Tranh sits up late by the fire, weary but uneasy about falling asleep here. He does not trust these villagers. Hurt lies in the dirt, curled up on his side, apparently accepting the transfer of title. Tranh smokes cigarettes. Occasionally he hears, he's not sure from what direction, an outcry of Belgian or German pain.
Tranh makes an effort to talk to James Patrick Hurt, but perhaps too easily gives up. He just doesn't know what to say to the man. There will be trained personnel to deal with him soon enough. The family can afford the very best. It's not Tranh's responsibility. He feels bad, though. Meanwhile he checks the safety on his Glock.
When it is barely dawn, they begin to gather by the boat. Tranh and Waldemar discuss the mapless portion of the journey back. Tranh kept careful notes all the way here. Waldemar's mood is not the best. He may be hungover.
When Tranh has the map out, Hurt standing nearby, now dressed in khaki cargo pants and a Sonic Youth t-shirt, his face still bisected into red and black, it occurs to Tranh to offer the medium-blue pen to the freed captive, turning the folded-over inadequate map so that Hurt may write a message.
Hurt writes, after seeming to give the opportunity some serious thought:
Tranh reads, then gazes into Hurt's calm blue eyes. Tranh is disturbed. He looks harder, looks harder, begins to say something, stops.
The headman, yawning in the morning light, comes to say goodbye. Tranh thanks him. They shake hands, after a manner. Handshakes as such are not a part of this culture.
Everyone is in the boat except for Waldemar and Tranh, who will push the boat off into the slow current downstream.
The headman says something else. Xoao translates:
"Would you recognize your dog if he went off white and came home black?"
Tranh does not answer.
After some time on the river Hurt begins to make a noise. When he will not stop, becomes louder, and seems restless, a prefilled syringe is employed. He quiets down as the intramuscular injection has its way.
When it torrentially rains, Hurt seems to take pleasure in the downpour. There is a different look upon his face. Eyes closed, he raises his face and opens his mouth.
After the rain stops, while the sun is drying everything, Tranh lights a cigarette. Then he notices how Hurt is watching, and offers him one too.
Hurt extends his trembling hand.
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