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January 2012 Volume 14 , Issue 1 submit to us!

by William Doonan -- Contributing Author [Email This Story]

The Bismayu have no words for hello, thank you, or goodbye. Nor have they any linguistic reference for the past. They live moment by moment, imagining time to be liquid and unpredictable like a foreign man's liquor.

The sixteen summers I've spent in this remote corner of the Amazon are to the Bismayu as insubstantial as raindrops. But I do have words for time, and for effort and accomplishment. As well as for failure, loss, and ruin, concepts which haunt me as surely as a Bismayu demon might.

Magnus Clinton is already waiting at the abandoned village by the river. I spot him from the air as my plane circles twice. His name was Bost when I first met him twenty-two years ago, but the Bismayu change their names frequently to confuse the three wind spirits who might otherwise recognize them and substantively change who they are. I recognize him right away, and it occurs to me that I myself might be one of the three wind spirits. An anthropologist has no cause to interfere with a culture, to change it, but it is my fault that Magnus Clinton has a sense of linear time. It's my fault he has an agenda, a real one (a Dayplanner), and a watch, and an iPod.

I still think of him as Bost. He is my link to the Bismayu, my first informant, the child whose curiosity made me laugh, and made my laughter appealing to the elders. Bost at seven, stealing my flip flops, made a pitiable but harmless fool of me. Bost at ten, as my principle linguistic window into one of the most complex grammars on the planet, made me fluent and fluid, something the Bismayu had not anticipated, having no word for anticipation. Bost at fourteen, nearly dying of typhus, made well by my touch, my antibiotics, my electrolytic fluid, made me something immediate, something undeniable, if indescribable, to the Bismayu mothers, all of them.

"A lovely airplane, Harlan," he calls out, as my plane floats to the river's edge, its pontoons cutting deep triangles in the soft sand. Four Pampo indian men accompany him, ready to help. They've been loitering around the abandoned village inhaling solvents and fishing with bad nets, and they're more than willing to carry my packs; paid work is not often come by. Pampos do have words for time, and effort, and compensation. They rarely get on well with the Bismayu who live further inland. And their conversations are awkward.

I shake Magnus Clinton's hand, a gesture that means nothing to him. I hug him too, a gesture that means even less. But he means so much to me, the son I think him to be, a central figure of my three books, my friend, a kind and gentle twenty-nine year-old man who struggles to see himself as I see him. He's a soul almost lost to his own people, just about gone now; one foot in Bismayu Prime village and one in Sao Paulo, a sorcery baton in one hand and a GameBoy in the other.

"How are you?" I ask instinctively, but I get no answer. The Bismayu dislike small talk. They dislike greetings, inquiries, and outsiders. But I haven't been an outsider for a long time. My knowledge of their language, of their customs, of their spirit world, makes me something of a Bismayu myself, though no words of inclusion exist to express this.

Magnus Clinton speaks nearly inaudibly to the Pampos who work quickly, loading my packs onto their backs for the two-hour walk to Bismayu Prime, the largest village, the locus of all my studies. It's beside a cataract on an unnamed arm of a minor Amazon tributary that I have refused to identify in my three books. The last thing the Bismayu need is more interloping. Even before the place takes off, we're already in the jungle, navigating a trail featured on no map. It's a trail I know well, and as I step purposefully over stones and thick vines, I'm glad to be returning, to renewing old friendships.

We walk in silence. Time moves differently here when it moves at all, and the village is quickly before us. The Pampos won't actually enter the village. They'd be killed if they did, or maybe not. The legends say they would, but the Bismayu don't believe in legends. Pampos do, however, and they'd soil their mission short pants if they passed under one of the three gate arches. They have enough to worry about as it is. Loggers and miners displaced most of the Pampos about a dozen years ago. There aren't more than thirty left, none over the age of thirty, and their mythology is fragmented. These are the last of the Pampos. They'll die by the river one day soon, or a couple of years from now in a cardboard slum when they realize the world has no use for them. The world has nothing more for the Bismayu either, but they have one thing going for them. They don't care, can't care, have no word for care. And they have me, and I won't let them go.

It's dusk when we arrive. I'm not going to tell you about the village. I've written about it in my three books, and you can read them at your leisure.

At least a dozen fires burn in at least a dozen hearths, families all around, but nobody comes to greet me. It would be inexplicable to do so. It would likewise be inappropriate to make my greetings to the elders in the evening like a demon would, so I'm quiet. Tomorrow I will be part of the village, just as today I am not, nothing more.

I have a little house that I slip into. It's made of sticks and reused lumber planks. It has a metal roof and a door that sometimes locks, and it's just big enough for my hammock and my army surplus table and chair. I love my house. I come here every summer and it's January. My house feels different.

They may be firing me back at the University. Or they may not be, it's unclear. They have no words at the University for compassion, or renewal, or hope, just unpaid administrative leave, dereliction of responsibilities, and failure to uphold contractual obligations, which mean nothing in Bismayu.

Magnus Clinton sees that my packs are brought to my house. He pays the Pampos with the money I've given him, and sends them on their way. It takes longer than it should to convince them he has no tubes of glue to share. Once inside my house, he shakes his head as he unpacks my things. He reads enough English to understand labels and customs declarations. "Sixteen cases of peanut butter is excessive," he tells me, "though trade is a possibility. But forty-two bottles of Bushmills is inappropriate, vast, and undeniable. Yourself would never trade this, so yourself plans to drink this."

I am reclined in my hammock, having opened my bottle, poured my glass. It is dark now and I have a single candle lit. "I am working through a difficult time," I tell him. "Leave me be."

He won't look at me now. "No, Harlan," he says. "They'll sing you out of the world." He fiddles with his mobile phone as he says this. There is no mobile phone service down here by the Bismayu cataract, but the ringtones are powerful, meaningful, and alluring to Bismayu youth.

I drink to excess. The Bismayu have no precise word for this but the University has quite a few. I'm trying. I'm broken, and brilliant, and brutal. And drunk. And all of this comes across in my classes. All of it.

"I will speak with Tesa in the morning," I tell him. Tesa is the Bismayu headman. He's very old, perhaps sixty. He's younger than me in years that he cannot count. Tesa speaks for the three lords of Nothing More, a domain below our own, and when someone dies, it is on their behalf that Tesa welcomes those who are no longer needed among the living. The Bismayu have no word for death but when the three lords call and Tesa sings someone out of the world, that person no longer has a place in Bismayu. And for the Bismayu, Bismayu is the whole world.

Magnus Clinton shakes his head. "Tesa is named Casper Letterman this day. And Casper Letterman will be . . . " He pauses. "He will be not appreciating."

"I know. I know. I know."

"He is telling you never again, Harlan. He is at another time telling you," he says, straining with the concept of a past tense.

"He told me," I say, correcting his grammar.

"We have three devils," he tells me. "Always three. But now we have four -- Bushmills is named as a terrible devil from beyond something. Nobody knows from where. What are we going to do with four of something, Harlan? What are we going to do?"

"I will speak with Casper Letterman in the morning."

He shrugs. "That is for the three demons of chance to decide."

He leaves.

Outside, around the fires, the Bismayu dance. It's a lovely dance; they embrace often. Each dancer sings in turn, no voice louder than another. I watch alone from my hammock, looking out through my doorway as heavy rats scurry across my roof. I think about all the classes I missed, and missed, and cared about, and missed even still. And I drink. I watch the dancing and I drink. It's 2011 but the dance is a hundred thousand generations old or more, from a time when no man conceived of himself as more valuable than another. This dance, this song, is core humanity. This is the machine language of our species. This is us as our best.

I sleep.

I wake to a vigorous shaking of my hammock. Tesa, now Casper Letterman, sits cross-legged on the floor. I've known him for twenty-two years, and to me he has never aged. He still wears the same donated mission short pants, though probably there have been a few pairs over the years. Rubber boots too, but I'm certain his corduroy dinner jacket has not been replaced.

Tesa has led his people for almost three decades, forged a tenuous peace with the loggers and the miners, authorized a comprehensive immunization program, and held a starring role in my three films on Bismayu culture. When Tesa welcomed the dead souls out of the world in my film - Saying Goodbye in Bismayu - he became an icon in the genre of anthropological film. He has traveled twice to the United States, and once, by his request, to the Eiffel Tower to make sure it was real.

He has apparently been sitting on my floor for some time, time enough at least to arrange my bottles in a circle around him. "We talk about this, Harlan," he tells me, "at a time not near now, a time ago."

He speaks evenly. In one hand he holds the pendant of Tovo, one of the three lords of Nothing More, and in the other, his satellite phone. He's been in regular contact with my department chair for much of the semester. He may have no word for yesterday but he does have an e-mail address and a page on Facebook.

I nod. "I'm trying to work it out," I tell him.

He stares at the pendant of Tovo. "You say the same thing at a time when you bring the record player. It was ago, a time not near now." Time is a difficult concept for the Bismayu, maybe for all of us.

A shaft of sunlight cuts through the window and lights up my liquor bottles, making dim lanterns of them. I sit up and place my hand on his. "Please," I say.

"Make your promise, Harlan," he tells me. "Feed your bottles to the three river serpents. Feed them today, all the bottles into the river. Make your promise."

I look away. I have no vocabulary for this, no words for saying no, no cultural honesty to bring to bear on this issue. The Bismayu would simply spit, turn their backs and walk away, and the issue would never surface again. But I've spit and I've spit and I've spit. And I've never turned my back.

"I'll try," I promise.

He shakes his head. The Bismayu have no words for disappointment, or disgust, or bullshit.

He is dancing the next time I see him. Four days have passed if empty bottles can be reliable indicators of the passage of time, and they can. My door is open wide and I have an unobstructed view of Casper Letterman dancing alone in front of a fire bigger than most. I reach for my water bottle but it isn't there. Nor is anything else; my packs, my liquor, nothing. I pull myself out of the hammock and stand in the doorway. I see the four Pampo men standing under the gate arch, my packs already loaded on their backs.

Magnus Clinton steps into the clearing. He leads me to the center of the village where an ash circle has been drawn on the ground in front of the fire. "Casper Letterman is named Barack Simpson today," he says as he sits me on the ground.

"I'm so sorry," I tell him, but it doesn't mean anything. Tears run down his cheeks. I'm crying too. It's such a fine day, not too hot. Overhead, the little blue parakeets squawk "puk, puk, puk" as Barack Simpson sings me out of the world.

It means I'm dead to the Bismayu; they'll never talk to me or even refer to me again, and in that, they have a lot in common with the University administration, who by revoking tenure, can just as effectively make a non-person of someone.

I am alone with my poor thoughts, sorrowful thoughts, lonesome thoughts during the two hour walk to the river. Magnus Clinton is understandably silent. He won't even look at me until the Pampos load my packs into the belly of the plane that has been summoned to collect me. "Today I am Elvis Gingrich," he tells me, his eyes full of tears. "Yourself should change your name, too. Yourself has been Harlan for too long."

"I feel that way too," I tell him as he reaches for my hand, something he has never done before.

"It must be well," he says. "It must be that you can fare gently, fare peacefully, fare well in your life."

"Farewell," I repeat. "It means the same thing as goodbye, you know. This is something for the textbooks."

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Features -- January 2012 -- Mid Month Issue