You know there is something unusual about the
Pamoot people as soon as you approach their village, which
sits on a green peninsula of land surrounded on three sides
by desert. Groups of men and women come running out to meet
you on the path. You are hesitant and afraid, even though
their faces are beaming with smiles. The Pamoot clap you on
the back and rub your shoulders, saying, “We’re so glad
you’ve returned, my friend. We thought you’d forgotten your
“You must be mistaking me for someone else,”
“You old jokester,” says one man. “Come eat
with us. Your wife will leap for joy when she sees you.
She is as beautiful as ever.”
When you enter the village, there is indeed a
beautiful woman there who claims to be your wife. She puts
her arms around your neck and looks deeply into your eyes.
“I have missed you,” she says, and kisses you softly on the
You have a difficult decision to make then.
Do you try to correct them at the risk of alienating
yourself from the tribe? And to anger people with such
nervous energy might be dangerous. Rather than rebuff the
entire tribe, you play along. Which, you learn later, is
exactly what the Pamoot expect.
Though slightly nervous, the Pamoot seem like
happy people, by appearances, anyway. Most of them have big
smiles on their faces and laugh easily. But sometimes their
smiles seem like stage smiles and their laughs like stage
laughs--a little too big to be believable, a little too much
for real life.
You play your part and become husband to a
beautiful Pamoot woman who treats you in every way as though
you had left some years ago on a long journey and promised
to return. She calls you Bahno, and at night she draws her
long, delicate fingers across your cheek and whispers in
your ear, “Bahno, I missed you so. Tell me how much you
still love me.”
And you have no choice but to respond, “I
love you as much as always, Alani. I’ve never loved you
In conversations with other Pamoot you begin
to grasp the willfulness of their convictions. One day, you
go walking with one of several men who claim to be the
“We’re glad you’ve returned, son,” he tells
you, putting his arm around your shoulders as a father does
to his son. Then you stop at the edge of the desert and
gaze out at the endless expanse of sand broken only by small
clumps of scrub. “As I stand here with you, I recall with
joy the moments of your youth, when these waters teemed with
fish and you and I fished together in the boat of my
You stare at the sand, trying to understand
him. “I remember,” you say.
“For old times’ sake,” he says, “let’s you
and I sail to the island of the Pamat and check in on our
distant relatives there.”
As your “father” readies the “boat” for the
next day’s journey, you see a woman in the village with her
arms cradled as though holding a baby. She lowers her head
and coos, rocking her arms and smiling.
“What are you holding?” you ask her.
“Bahno!” she says. “Did no one tell you I
had a child while you were gone?”
You shake your head.
“Would you like to hold her?” She stretches
her arms out toward you, and you’re forced to oblige. You
pull the invisible baby to your chest.
“Mm. Heavy,” you say.
“She’s growing quickly,” she says. “She’ll
be big and strong like her father.”
“May I ask the father’s name?” you say.
She looks at you quizzically. “Bahno,” she
says, shaking her head and smiling. “I thought you’d
recognize the face of your own child.”
You nearly drop it.
“Oh! Be careful with her!” The woman pulls
your invisible daughter from you and holds it to her
shoulder. “You’ve upset her, Bahno. You should be more
gentle!” Then she walks away, leaving you agitated and
speechless and feeling strangely guilty for having cheated
on Alani. Though you tell yourself that none of it’s true,
you’re beginning to have doubts.
The next morning, the man who claims to be
your father comes to get you in your hut. You walk with him
to the edge of the desert.
“Hop in, Bahno,” he says.
There is nothing to hop into, but by this
time you’ve figured out the game, so you step into an
imaginary boat and sit down in the sand.
He laughs at you. “We’ll never get anywhere
in that position,” he says. He steps in beside you and
helps you to your feet. You then begin walking out into the
“Brings back good memories, eh?” says your
You walk for two hours and begin to think
this man is leading you into certain death. Your throat is
burning with thirst and your skin feels like it will melt
off your bones. Finally, you come to a village in a little
“The island of the Pamat,” says your
The village is the most depressing sight of
your journey. The people there are gaunt and starving.
Listless children hobble around with bellies swollen from
hunger. Many of the adults are all bones and sunken eyes.
Yet most of them still manage to smile, almost as broadly as
One man approaches you as you enter the
village. He is older, nearly bald, gray skin hanging from
“Balah!” he says and hugs your “father.”
Balah turns to you and says, “You remember
your Uncle Gee, Bahno?”
“Of course,” you say, smiling. You’ve grown
more comfortable with this game of pretend. Too
comfortable. But you don’t hug him for fear his bones might
After a few minutes of friendly conversation,
your “father” announces he is going to seek out other
“We’ll join you shortly,” says Gee. “Bahno
and I have a little catching up to do.”
When you are alone with him, your “uncle”
says quietly, “It’s sad the way they delude themselves.”
You’re startled. Here at last is someone who
can fill you in. “You understand what’s going on?” you ask.
“Of course,” he says. “You must be one of
those scientists who come out here occasionally to study the
strange customs of the Pamoot. As usual, the Pamoot pretend
you are someone else. This man, who mistakenly believes he
is my brother, also mistakenly believes you are his son.
But I know from my own visits to the Pamoot village that
this man’s real son disappeared years ago. He’s been
waiting for a stranger. And I suppose you’ve been claimed
as a husband by his daughter-in-law, too.”
You nod. It’s all coming together now.
“It’s tragic, really,” says Gee. “The woman,
like all the Pamoot, believes she can make something real
just by saying it’s true. They live a fantasy life. But
you must admit they’re good actors.”
“Excellent actors,” you say. “They’ve led me
to play along, and I’ve even caught myself believing it’s
“Careful,” says Gee. “Don’t be drawn in too
deeply. You might forget yourself and never return home.”
You visit with other Pamat, supposed
relations of yours. Everyone is friendly, and no one seems
bothered by the starvation and poor health of the tribe.
You try to return smiles, but your heart aches too much at
their wretched condition. You feel helpless, and you wonder
if you’ll ever be the same when you do return home, wherever
that might be.
“We should return before dark,” Balah says
“Oh, but you must stay for the feast,” says
Gee. “We have a pig roasting right now. It will be a great
celebration in your honor.”
“We really can’t,” says Balah. “You know how
unpredictable the sea is. We should return while it’s
Your Pamat relatives reluctantly say their
goodbyes. As you walk through the village, you see the fire
they’ve started for the feast. Beside the fire, a skeletal,
starving man with diseased skin turns the handle on the
spit, slowly roasting an imaginary pig.
“It’s tragic the way these people delude
themselves,” says Balah, shaking his head at the
You look at him, shocked and confused, no
longer sure who to believe, including yourself. You say no
You cross the “sea” with Balah and return to
the Pamoot village, where you find there’s been a skirmish
with a rival tribe.
“Look what they did to me with their spears,”
says one man, raising his shirt to show you his stomach. It
is smooth and uninjured.
“I see you fought bravely,” says Balah. “You
will be rewarded, but only after you get that deep wound
The man smiles and runs off to see the
You realize that night you’d better leave
before it’s too late. You already have a wife, a lover, and
an imaginary child. Balah has even promised to give you
some governing responsibilities in the village. You feel
yourself getting entangled in village life, as though the
Pamoot have cast a net of imaginary relationships to trap
you there. And then you see something that confirms your
decision. At the victory celebration that night, there is a
Caucasian man dancing among the Pamoot. He dances just as
well as the Pamoot, as though he’s been there a long time.
You ask him his name.
“I am Nabolo,” he says, revealing a French
accent. “Husband of Beela and son of Byat and Gani. I,
too, am glad you’ve returned, Bahno. Welcome home.”
He hugs you and then returns to his dancing.
You tell Alani the next morning. “I must
leave the village to go hunting,” you say, because you don’t
have the heart to tell her the truth.
Her eyes widen and a tremor passes through
her. “I’ll wait for you,” she says.
“I’ll think of you,” you say.
She follows you a little ways down the path.
“I’ll miss you, Bahno,” she says, smiling
widely even as her tears fall.
Your heart tightens, and a few steps down the
path, you begin to cry, too, and then you understand that
not everything about the Pamoot is imaginary.