Amazonia - Page 1

  • Prologue

    JULY 25, 6:24 P.M.



    Padre Garcia Luiz Batista was struggling with his hoe, tilling weeds from the mission’s garden, when the stranger stumbled from the jungle. The figure wore a tattered pair of black denim pants and nothing else. Bare-chested and shoeless, the man fell to his knees among rows of sprouting cassava plants. His skin, burnt a deep mocha, was tattooed with blue and crimson dyes.

    Mistaking the fellow for one of the local Yanomamo Indians, Padre Batista pushed back his wide-brimmed straw hat and greeted the fellow in the Indians’ native tongue. “Eou, shori,” he said. “Welcome, friend, to the mission of Wauwai.”

    The stranger lifted his face, and Garcia instantly knew his mistake. The fellow’s eyes were the deepest blue, a color unnatural among the Amazonian tribes. He also bore a scraggled growth of dark beard.

    Clearly not an Indian, but a white man.

    “Bemvindo,” he offered in Portuguese, believing now that the fellow must be one of the ubiquitous peasants from the coastal cities who ventured into the Amazon rain forest to stake a claim and build a better life for themselves. “Be welcome here, my friend.”

    The poor soul had clearly been in the jungle a long time. His skin was stretched over bone, each rib visible. His black hair was tangled, and his body bore cuts and oozing sores. Flies flocked about him, buzzing and feeding on his wounds.

    When the stranger tried to speak, his parched lips cracked and fresh blood dribbled down his chin. He half crawled toward Garcia, an arm raised in supplication. His words, though, were garbled, unintelligible, a beastly sound.

    Garcia’s first impulse was to retreat from the man, but his calling to God would not let him. The Good Samaritan did not refuse the wayward traveler. He bent and helped the man to his feet. The fellow was so wasted he weighed no more than a child in his arms. Even through his own shirt, the padre could feel the heat of the man’s skin as he burned with fever.

    “Come, let us get you inside out of the sun.” Garcia guided the man toward the mission’s church, its whitewashed steeple poking toward the blue sky. Beyond the building, a ragtag mix of palm-thatched huts and wooden homes spread across the cleared jungle floor.

    The mission of Wauwai had been established only five years earlier, but already the village had swelled to nearly eighty inhabitants, a mix of various indigenous tribes. Some of the homes were on stilts, as was typical of the Apalai Indians, while others built solely of palm thatch were home to the Waiwai and Tiriós tribes. But the greatest number of the mission’s dwellers were Yanomamo, marked by their large communal roundhouse.

    Garcia waved his free arm to one of the Yanomamo tribesmen at the garden’s edge, a fellow named Henaowe. The short Indian, the padre’s assistant, was dressed in pants and a buttoned, long-sleeved shirt. He hurried forward.

    “Help me get this man into my house.”

    Henaowe nodded vigorously and crossed to the man’s other side. With the feverish man slung between them, they passed through the garden gate and around the church to the clapboard building jutting from its south face. The missionaries’ residence was the only home with a gas generator. It powered the church’s lights, a refrigerator, and the village’s only air conditioner. Sometimes Garcia wondered if the success of his mission was not based solely on the wonders of the church’s cool interior, rather than any heartfelt belief in salvation through Christ.

    Once they reached the residence, Henaowe ducked forward and yanked the rear door open. They manhandled the stranger through the dining room to a back room. It was one of the domiciles of the mission’s acolytes, but it was now unoccupied. Two days ago, the younger missionaries had all left on an evangelical journey to a neighboring village. The small room was little more than a dark cell, but it was at least cool and sheltered from the sun.

    Garcia nodded for Henaowe to light the room’s lantern. They had not bothered to run the electricity to the smaller rooms. Cockroaches and spiders skittered from the flame’s glow.

    Together they hauled the man to the single bed. “Help me get him out of his clothes. I must clean and treat his wounds.”

    Henaowe nodded and reached for the buttons to the man’s pants, then froze. A gasp escaped the Indian. He jumped back as if from a scorpion.

    “Weti kete?” Garcia asked. “What is it?”

    Henaowe’s eyes had grown huge with horror. He pointed to the man’s bare chest and spoke rapidly in his native tongue.

    Garcia’s brow wrinkled. “What about the tattoo?” The blue and red dyes were mostly geometric shapes: crimson circles, vibrant squiggles, and jagged triangles. But in the center and radiating out was a serpentine spiral of red, like blood swirling down a drain. A single blue hand-print lay at its center, just above the man’s navel.

    “Shawara!” Henaowe exclaimed, backing toward the door.

    Evil spirits.

    Garcia glanced back to his assistant. He had thought the tribesman had grown past these superstitious beliefs. “Enough,” he said harshly. “It’s only paint. It’s not the devil’s work. Now come help me.”

    Henaowe merely shook in terror and would approach no closer.

    Frowning, Garcia returned his attention to his patient as the man groaned. His eyes were glassy with fever and delirium. He thrashed weakly on the sheets. Garcia checked the man’s forehead. It burned. He swung back to Henaowe. “At least fetch the first-aid kit for me and the penicillin in the fridge.”

    With clear relief, the Indian dashed away.

    Garcia sighed. Having lived in the Amazonian rain forest for a decade, he had out of necessity learned basic medical skills: setting splints, cleaning and applying salves to wounds, treating fevers. He could even perform simple operations, like suturing wounds and helping with difficult births. As the padre of the mission, he was not only the primary guardian of their souls, but also counselor, chief, and doctor.

    Garcia removed the man’s soiled clothes and set them aside. As his eyes roved over the man’s exposed skin, he could clearly see how sorely the unforgiving jungle had ravaged his body. Maggots crawled in his deep wounds. Scaly fungal infections had eaten away the man’s toe-nails, and a scar on his heel marked an old snakebite.

    As he worked, the padre wondered who this man was. What was his story? Did he have family out there somewhere? But all attempts to speak to the man were met only with a garbled, delirious response.

    Many of the peasants who tried to eke out a living met hard ends at the hands of hostile Indians, thieves, drug traffickers, or even jungle predators. But the most common demise of these settlers was disease. In the remote wilds of the rain forest, medical attention could be weeks away. A simple flu could bring death.