cushycms Greater Story - Songs of the Guayaki
songs of the guayaki

“An orange-gold cloud, spherical and glowing, is crashing loudly within the forest, coming toward us - - -”

Songs of the Guayakí

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private commission 2008


On a certain day, at the western edge of the vast Amazon forest, a drop of water materialized from nothing. It balanced on the leaf of a creeper vine, beneath a Jacaranda tree in full flower, surrounded by the caws of jungle birds and the chittering of monkeys. Glistening and spherical, it perched there in the humid, perfumed air, fracturing sunlight into shards of color.

When an iridescent blue butterfly landed on the leaf, the drop jiggled, disturbing its spherical rainbow, but clung to the surface. But when the always dependable earth began to tremble, the vine shook so violently that the drop rolled off and fell toward the ground.

What kept it from striking the earth was a claw, black and curved, erupting from the soil in a shower of dirt. This drop of Amazon moisture oozed down the claw, and lodged in the fur-covered arm of the first Human.

“Bow no have; arrows no have; tembetá, no; woman hands all empty.”

These words came from Kimirági (Kim-ear-AH-ghee), relater of myths. They had been transcribed by the Paraguayan anthropologist who had preceded me by ten years. He was an amateur anthropologist, without university training. But what he did possess was more experience, tapes, and field notes than anyone else, documenting the habits and culture of Kimirági’s tribe of naked residents in the dense Paraguayan forests. He paraphrased where imprecise translation forced him to, connecting the exact words of Kimiragi’s quotes:

First Grandfathers of the Aché (Ah-CHE) lived in the bowels of the earth - - - then they emerged one day ---

“--- enraged, all of them frightful --- . Resembling the armadillo, First Grandfathers scratched at the earth with claws to escape.”

They possessed nothing - - -

“Bow no have; arrows no have; tembetá, no; woman hands all empty.”

Soon after that interview, Kimirági’s band of twenty Guayakí (Goo-eye-zh-ah-KEY) - as the whites called them) - were transferred, in the back of a diesel-belching flatbed truck, to a military reservation at Cerro Morotí.

The surface of the truckbed hurt their feet: it was flat, and there were no branches, or clumps of mud to grip with their powerful, splayed toes.

A mated pair of scarlet macaws swam through the air above the truck, and accompanied the little band to their new home. The anthropologist recorded that he was not allowed by the soldiers there to enter the reservation nor to interview the Aché ( “the Humans” - as they call themselves - ) again.

A decade later, I would discover that these same words of Kimirági would still echo through the Aché creation myth, but that their meaning would have been monstrously transformed.

* * *

Several international accusations and newspaper articles unflattering to the President of the country opened the opportunity for my expedition to the Aché reservation. The soldiers were gone by then, I’d been told, replaced by American missionaries. Studying the notes and tapes of the amateur anthropologist ignited my interest, and some changes in my life made the time seem right for undertaking the adventure.

My first view of it was out the window of an old propeller-driven airplane. Vastness below me. For four hours at plane speed, green, from horizon to horizon.

The Capital city sprawled up from the banks of a wide, muddy river. Its streets had as many donkey-drawn wooden carts as automobiles. On one Wednesday during the few days I spent there acquiring a vehicle and provisions, a sudden and torrential rainstorm turned those streets into half-meter deep rivers which roared down the slope, carrying all the accumulated street garbage, and a couple of Volkswagons, to oblivion.

There was only one paved route in the country ( “ruta” in Spanish ). It was almost up to European standards. The several hours drive east toward the reservation turned out to be, itself, a study in anthropology.

Multicolored buses, overflowing with luggage, people, and their animals careened into my rear view mirror, lurched nauseatingly on broken springs within centimeters of my rear bumper, and at the first opportunity (often a blind curve) roared past me on my left like turbo-charged circus wagons. I had to swerve to avoid being sideswiped. I gripped the wheel fiercely as my right tires yanked through the sandy shoulder. A thick cloud of diesel smoke signaled that the bus had passed me, and I could return to the macadam. The bus was, by then, obscure beyond the diesel cloud, carrying its people and animals toward the developing frontiers of eastern Paraguay and, beyond that, toward the dense jungles of Brazil.

From the opposite direction, out of the East, erupted rattling trucks carrying massive cylinders of forest hardwood tied to their flatbeds. They were destined for the sawmills and markets in the Capital I’d just left. For them, “opposite direction” did not always mean opposite lane.

I had to swerve again.

Their trailing plume of diesel flatulence signaled that I could, for a while at least, return my Land Rover’s right tires to the paved road.

* * *

Field Notes : September 20, morning:

About human physiology - the stench of diesel smoke lingers long in the sinuses.

* * *

During stretches free of traffic, I scanned the vast savanna to the left and right, divided by the ruta like a scalpel slice. Here were the flatlands of long-inhabited rural Paraguay. Gaunt Brahma cattle stood knee deep in grass under a sky bleached pale by the incessant sun. Occasional brown-skinned people walked barefooted along the ruta, then were sucked into the Doppler effect of my moving vehicle, and evaporated from view. Cowboys on horseback, their spurs tied onto their bare feet with crude twine, their heels as dark and cracked as an old saddle, moved at a pace barely faster than the grazing cows.

The road that led into the forest which I sought was beyond these Colonial era ranch lands, further east.

Eventually the monotonously flat eastern horizon before me became wrinkled, then irregular, then jagged and more densely green than the sprawling emerald grasslands. The distant forest grew as I approached it. Within half an hour it had spread to dominate also the northern and southern horizons beside my vehicle. As I continued east, the forest surrounded the cleared grazing lands straddling the ruta, squeezing them into shrinking islands in a vast ocean of Amazonian forest.

I turned left at a town named for some obscure Paraguayan military hero and drove north on a dirt road. It led to a village named for some obscure Spanish saint. Beyond the dust-encrusted village I found the turn-off to the reservation. My Land Rover dropped onto it, and immediately bottomed out on the transmission, its wheels dangling in two parallel ruts like a turtle balanced on the tip of a rock with its little legs flailing. I had to engage four-wheel drive.

The Land Rover crawled along this deeply eroded cowpath of a road toward the looming forest of primeval armadillos and living, stone-age Guayakí. At one point, I looked out my side window to see a rat scurrying alongside, moving much faster than I.

After forty-five minutes I saw, where the road finally met the forest, a person walking down the path toward me. As I got closer, I saw that he was very tall – at least twenty centimeters taller than the average Paraguayan – and thin. When I was about a hundred meters from the looming wall of green, he stopped, and held up his right hand like a traffic cop. I stopped, and waited for him, but he just stood there. Under his chin, and in two perfect circles around his eyes, his skin was pale white, almost translucent. Elsewhere - wherever exposed to the sun - it was red. He held a thick black book in his left hand, and a holstered pistol hugged his right hip.