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September 09, 2003

Memory's Teeth

“Nature red in tooth and claw”
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson

It was the flight out that held prominence in memory at first, the great hand of gravity dragging me towards the clawing trees as the red and white floatplane, more effortlessly than expected, lifted lightly above them. “We could have made it out with the other two,” Dad remarked as he steadied us in a course downstream where we were to meet the other two men, a place wider and longer. These places were far up in the hump of Brazil that curls against the crags of Peru. Here the rivers run quick and narrow, unlike the main flows farther north where the waters, tan and lazy, roll sluggishly east.

Some days earlier we had arrived, landing far downstream to let off the two men with us. Then Dad and I, who was skinny enough to be insignificant in weight and balance envelopes, made the landing in the straight stretch closest to the village. The wing tips seemed to overlap the banks, and, in fact, the trees near the banks had been cut back for greater clearance.

When it came time to leave, we taxied in the Cessna-185 floatplane, just Dad and I again, far up to the bend at the top of the stretch where a downed tree blocked further passage. After studying the stretch, one already carefully clocked in flyby passes before the landing, Dad tied a long yellow nylon rope to the strut which had supported the tail wheel before the conversion to floats, tossed that over the thick bole of the tree, then climbed back into the pilot seat with the other end wrapped around his left arm. The plane was already facing downstream; now it was held against the pull of the swift current also. Then, as was not quite exceptional but not entirely normal either, he bowed his head and prayed.

He did not release the rope, but rather revved the engine until the hand holding the rope trembled, then with the engine near full power let the rope slip and we blasted off downstream, the rope trailing behind like a victory banner or the strand of a web that had failed to catch us. One fast-growing palm had thrust back up near shore high enough to bang against the wing’s leading edge as we rose atop the water on the step. It left a small crinkled place as permanent reminder of that first flight from where no plane had lifted off before.

I remember watching the banks and the crowding jungle flash by. I was looking out the side window either because I could not see over the raised nose of the plane, or because I could not bear watching the too swift approach of the solid wall of trees bearing down upon us from ahead. But they could not catch our wings, nor tangle the trailing rope. We made our appointment downstream, then continued the flight back to the broader, longer places of the rivers.

For all the thrill and terror of that flight, what is more vivid now is another thing. From that streamside we hiked a long trail up into the hills to the main village of the tribe. Perhaps the trail was not so long as it is in my memory, for that trail was well traveled. I do not recall if there was a source of water closer to the village, or if that trail was employed for carrying water, I tend to think the latter for it was lined with a variety of cultivated plants. One particular variety caught my interest, its bright green leaves contrasting sharply with the flaming red tooth-shaped seed pods basking in puddles of bright sun seeping from above the trail. It is said the chili pepper originated somewhere in the Andes or in the Amazon basin just east. Their presence here in that Amazon basin, with a tribe barely in contact with the outside world, suggests one or the other is true. At the time I neither knew that Columbus brought this promethean culinary gift to the world from his contacts with the Caribbean tribes, nor wondered at the presence of this fruit in such a remote place, but I now wonder that something from there has so conquered the rest of the world, even before that place itself has barely been touched.

The bird pepper is a tiny incendiary. As we hiked that trail I would occasionally pluck one and toy with it in the way children do. I was perhaps ten. No one commented. There were many, many bushes and peppers, a surfeit for the community. I tend to believe now they were grown for ornamental reasons as much as for their value as a spice. I accumulated a handful along the way back, then threw them away.

Or so I thought. When a bit later I rubbed my mouth I discovered they were still, in essence, in my hands. The capsaicin’s fire bit at the delicate tissues of my lips quickly and persistently. Water did nothing but contribute a small topical cooling. Once its effect was felt, it vanished before the persistent gnawing of the capsaicin. Several remedies were suggested, tried, and discarded in rapid succession. I recall, in the end, rubbing toothpaste on my lips. Whether that contained a neutralizing agent or whether the heat had run its course I cannot say, but after that the biting heat became bearable, and sometime thereafter vanished.

Some things persist beyond their visible presence. The memory of those peppers comes back to me at the oddest moments. It is said we forget pain very quickly, which is a great blessing, so the heat and fire burning my lips, at best a diffuse glow now in recollection, must not be the agent of memory.
Other memories of that place and time persist: a long trip upstream in a canoe in search of a giant black caiman; eating from black-scorched communal pots, one full of plantain mush, another holding boiled manioc, a third stewed meat from which one was as apt to retrieve the hand of a monkey as a rib of peccary, or breast of wildfowl. But it is a story that I remember most, perhaps because there imagination more than memory works.

There was an Indian hunter who hunted jaguars. He was of the Marubus, a highland tribe, tall and solid, gleaming, bronzed muscle, fine, white teeth, and thick, jet hair cut bluntly with a gourd bowl as a guide. The Marubu contact with the “civilized” world had been sparse and sporadic. From these contacts they had acquired the most basic staples: sugar, salt, machetes, axes, and shotguns. The shotguns were the Amazonian standard 16 gauge, single-shot, break-at-the-breech variety. The shells they loaded were green paper with a brass base. Everyone loaded his own shells with primers, and black powder, a notoriously unpredictable propellant, especially in the omnipresent humidity of that rainforest.

This hunter was typical, very frugal with his powder and shot as must be those who barter them from outsiders. He would re-melt his lead slug and recast it as a solid ball. He would measure his powder to the short side, to stretch one more shot from his pouch. There was no scrimping on primers; it was simply one per shot. These circumstances did not deter nor slow those who learned to hunt with bow and arrow or blowgun. They were already accustomed to the long, slow stalk, or the hours of waiting at a salt lick or water hole for the perfect shot that assured them a good hit and a kill. The impatient hunters had long ago starved; need is a stern teacher.

Before contact with outsiders, the hunting of a jaguar, were it done at all, would perhaps be some sort of rite of passage. The jaguar pelt was prized for its color and pattern, but the technology of tanning and preserving hides was not very developed in a climate where things rot so quickly. Plant fibers, vegetable dyes, and colorful feathers were more often employed for dress and ornamentation. But after the hunger for salt was kindled, the tooth for sweets was honed, and the itch for the power of gunpowder and steel was stimulated, patterns shifted. Now beasts not hunted often in the past became staple prey simply because they were the most valuable trade items with outsiders. High on this list with the caiman hide was the pelt of the jaguar.

So this Indian hunted jaguars. Essential to this hunt are dogs, as the jaguar is a wily and invisible prey best hunted by scent. Once the cat was treed by a pack of good dogs, the hunter could carefully place his shot so as to not harm the hide any more than necessary; this meant a careful head shot.

He found the spoor of a cat and set his dogs on the trail. Some hours later the chase finally ended below a tree into which the jaguar had climbed, tired of trying to lose the dogs. After the run through the jungle, a place in which every other tree or plant has thorns (or so it seems to those trying to run through it), in humidity hovering near the dew point, not to mention the continual heat, this must be the easy part, one would think. So the hunter must have thought. He raised his 16 gauge to his shoulder and sighted along the barrel, placing the brass bead at the end so that it centered on the forehead of the snarling cat, then pulled the trigger.

The resultant cloud of blue smoke, the signature of black powder cartridges, probably obscured his view for several crucial seconds. Whether the force of the shot knocked the cat from the tree or it simply leapt from the tree itself, he probably did not know, but he did soon know that rather than simply dropping to the ground, the jaguar was upon him where he stood with his single shot fired, his shotgun now effectively a steel and wood club.

The jaguar’s method of killing involves crushing vertebrae in the neck, severing the spinal cord. This is normally accomplished by dropping upon their prey from above and behind, or at least leaping upon them from behind if no convenient perch is available. In this case the jaguar was in front of the hunter, the normal approach was impossible, so it simply leapt and clamped its powerful teeth directly onto and into the skull of the hunter.

Thus began the dance macabre. The hunter was not killed by the jaguar either. Each had taken one shot, as it were, and each had only succeeded in wounding the other. In each case the skull had saved them, withstanding massive attacks, one by a lead slug, the other by large, powerful, piercing teeth. About them swirled a swarm of dogs, probably not more than four or five, perhaps as few as two, growling and biting at the jaguar. The Indian himself somehow managed to throw off the cat, but had no time to break his gun, eject the shell (not always a simple procedure with reused paper cases which expanded with the shot), fetch another from his pouch, and reload. So, facing a huge, snarling cat, he resorted to that first and most primitive of killing implements. A shotgun makes a rather good club, actually, if held by the barrel and swung firmly so that the heavier stock connects with the target. How he could see to aim with the blood that must have been streaming from his head, how he could hold the barrel of the gun with hand that must have been slickened with blood, how he himself remained standing covered in that same blood, I can only imagine. Perhaps he aimed at the snarling screams of the jaguar. In any case, the jaguar was finally overcome, though the gun was ruined, and the Indian was severely hurt. Though it can only be conjecture now, I imagine one or more of the dogs must have been gravely hurt or killed in this fracas also. Most good hunting dogs will put themselves between the hunted animal and the hunter, even at the cost of their own lives.

He skinned the cat, and for good measure, took its skull also. Then he walked back to the village where he collapsed.

This is where my father saw him, some days later, when he was at the village visiting. By the time he arrived the hunter was delirious and in very grave condition. The jaguar’s teeth had penetrated his skull and the resultant infection reached into his brain driving him mad. He died very shortly thereafter.
Perhaps it is the circularity of the situation and the resulting irony that makes this tale so memorable to me. If the hunter had not been hunting jaguars, this would not have happened. But he was hunting jaguars so he could trade their pelts for powder and shot. The powder and shot was mostly necessary for hunting the larger game, especially jaguars, as blowguns and bows and arrows worked well for birds and monkeys, and those are generally more common in any case. To save on powder he was loading his shell “light,” trimming back the grains of powder, and perhaps as a result the slug did not in this case penetrate the jaguar’s skull. All the “ifs” seem to swirl around in a cloud of sulfurous blue smoke.

But maybe the irony isn’t it. Maybe what makes this story stay with me is the picture of a noble, but savage, beast, the jaguar, shot in the head, its thick skull taking the shot and holding, not fleeing from the superior and unintelligible technology of man, but leaping straight at him, his tormentor, and attempting to turn the table. And then, that man, wounded, after using a technology that had failed him, rather than turning and fleeing at the failure, seeing in the form of the new tool an older one, reaching back and into himself and overcoming this manifestation of pure natural power by meeting it on its own terms, tooth and claw and club.

That is an imagined picture. Not only was I not there to see the scene, I never met the protagonist, nor was the protagonist able to ever recount exactly what happened to my father, from whom came the skeleton of the memory my own imagination has long since fleshed out.

Not knowing is more memorable than knowing, thus the flight out, at the time the most vivid memory, paled to the mysterious but burning heat of the bird peppers. And that fire faded before something veiled in the shadows of time, distance, and death.

Posted by dan at September 9, 2003 12:07 PM
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