The Umbas live in a
chaotic and fertile rain forest, where contorted trees
scuffle toward the light and vines weave themselves daily
into nooses, whips, and webs. Life’s cycles seem
concentrated there into vivid tableaux: youthful plants and
animals sailing close-hauled toward the sun, others falling
away to the seething, regenerative cauldron on the forest
floor--huge leaves tumbling like wounded birds, flowers and
fruits like guillotined heroes, small animals like cliff
The intensity of life
and death in the forest makes the Umbas eager to
participate: because eighty years is too long a wait, they
die young. And because death for them is a state of grace,
they die often, passing away and reviving themselves perhaps
dozens of times in the course of a normal life span.
When alive, Umbas are
obsessed with order. If they decide they need a new
village, they walk off a plot of ground exactly one hundred
sixty three steps on each side. Then they take machetes and
cut down every tree, bush, vine, and weed within the plot.
When the cuttings are removed, they have a perfect square of
packed dirt on which to build their huts, which measure
exactly six steps on each side and are made from a single
tree, the walls of rectangular planks cut from the trunk and
the roof thatched neatly from the leaves. Inside, there are
one-step by two-step sleeping mats woven from sweet-smelling
Umba society is
steeply hierarchical, with strict codes of behavior and a
rigid division of labor. The tribal chief has four ranked
assistants who are local chiefs for the four known Umba
villages in the forest. Each village chief in turn has
three assistants, the first an information officer who
gathers reports of suspicious and unbecoming behavior, the
second an enforcer for the chief’s rulings on such behavior,
and the third responsible solely for matters of the dead,
which include death announcements and, occasionally, burial.
Every man in the
village works for one of these three assistants, and each
man is ranked by age. The women work for their husbands,
first wives ranked higher than second. Children answer
directly to their mothers and are ranked by their ages. In
this way, the government of the village runs smoothly: every
member of the tribe is also a member of the government. No
one can complain about the administration.
Social codes dictate
almost every aspect of Umba behavior. An Umba of a lower
rank, for instance, may not look an Umba of higher rank in
the eye, which means, because all Umbas are ranked, that
living Umbas never have their glances met. Neither may a
lower ranked Umba speak first to a higher ranked one. If an
Umba has information to report, he must stand in his
superior’s presence until commanded to speak. Thus, idle
conversation is rare among living Umbas.
On the other hand,
when Umbas die, they may do as they please.
Sometimes the Umbas
die for only a few hours, sometimes for a year. With
practice, it’s said, the dead learn to make their bodies
rot. That’s a sign to the living not to expect them back.
An Umba can die in a
variety of ways. He may sleep late one morning and not be
roused from his sleeping mat. He may eat too much, or not
enough. He may be on his way to the minister of the
department of enforcement for punishment when, walking on
one of the rock-lined, arrow-straight paths, he may suddenly
clutch his chest or his throat or trip and fall a little too
hard. If something like this happens, an officer of the
department of death must inspect the body and then relay his
observations up the chain of command to the director of the
department of death, the chief’s assistant, who reviews the
Are the eyes closed?
Do they not open when
the body is shaken? Check.
Does the body not stir
when its name is called? Check.
If these conditions
are met, the director declares the fallen Umba dead and then
reports this information (with downcast eyes) to the village
chief. The death announcement descends the chain of command
to the small crowd that has gathered around the fallen man.
Then the officer who first discovered the body announces to
everyone, “This man [or woman] has been declared dead by his
greatness the director of the department of death, whose
decision is approved by the royal supreme chief of our
village. Let it be noted by all.”
The crowd disperses
and returns to its daily business. Shortly thereafter, the
dead Umba also gets up and begins life as a member of the
For an Umba, death can
be an attractive alternative to living. A dead Umba is
constrained by no social codes and needn’t obey any laws.
He can look at who
he wants, speak his mind to anyone, travel where he wants
and sleep where he wants.
A dead Umba may laugh
in the face of his still-living superior. A dead man may
steal vegetables from a garden, or pluck a bite of meat
right off a living man’s fire. A dead woman may sleep with
a living woman’s husband, or a dead man with a living man’s
wife (living Umbas explain this with their own versions of
the incubus and succubus). Dead Umbas habitually transgress
against the living in countless ways, including theft,
vandalism, and bawdy practical jokes. They may be as
troublesome or coarse as they like, without fear of the
Because, after all,
the living do not recognize the presence of the dead. A
husband and wife might be having sex before an audience of
dead voyeurs, but of course the couple feel no shame—the
staring eyes of the dead don’t register. The dead may shout
in the ears of the living, but their voices go unheard. If
the living think they hear something and react as though
startled, someone will laugh, “You must be hearing ghosts.”
And if the dead trip up the living or shove them to the
ground, onlookers will simply call them clumsy.
Another advantage of
being dead is the freedom to socialize. Umbas as far apart
in life as a second level officer and an eighth level
officer’s second wife may, in death, look each other in the
eye and carry on a friendly and aimless conversation. The
dead rejoice in gossip, since they are experts at uncovering
secrets around the village. Some who plan on being dead for
months or longer even build huts and marry, but there’s a
danger that because the living consider the mysterious huts
unoccupied, they may one day take machetes to them and plant
perfectly square gardens in their places.
The dead often go out
into the forest at night and hold outrageous and orgiastic
parties, making a mockery of the solemn density of life
around them. They dance, sing, and howl like the living
would never do. They strip themselves naked and romp like
shameless animals. They concoct a pungent alcoholic
beverage called the Drink of the Dead, and they get so drunk
that if they were alive they’d be hauled in front of the
village chief himself for caning (and then they’d wish they
were dead). Sometimes the dead come running through the
village in rowdy groups, shouting and banging on huts and
vandalizing property. The living, if they notice anything
at all, will mistake this for a storm.
At some point, the
Umbas get tired of being dead. The bacchanalia wears on
them, and their natural desire for order and propriety takes
over. When this happens, they return to the spot of their
death and lie down in the position of their death. After a
few minutes, someone will come along and say, “I believe
this body is stirring!” The message is sent up the chain of
command to the director of the department of death.
Is the body
Does the blood move
beneath the skin? Check.
Does the body stir
when its name is called? Check.
If these conditions
are met, the dead Umba is then declared living, the ruling
is passed down through the ranks, and the officer who first
noticed the body announces to the small crowd, “This man has
been declared living by his greatness the director of the
department of death, whose decision is approved by the royal
supreme chief of our village. Let it be noted by all.”
The man then opens his
eyes, careful not to look at any of his superiors, gets up,
and returns to his hut to resume his carefully regimented
No Umba may be held
accountable for any action performed while dead, of course,
because no living Umba recognizes a dead one. Neither may
an Umba repeat any information learned while dead or relate
any experience of being dead, which is a good thing, because
most of a dead Umba’s behavior would cause acute
embarrassment in life.
Still, the revived man
feels a sadness he can’t fully explain, and which will
eventually lead him back to life among the dead. He has
made friends in death that he’d never have made in life.
He’s done and seen things in death that he never could have
in life. He’s fallen in love a dozen times over, changed
his name and ways a dozen times over. He’s learned a new
dance for each night of the week, a new song for each
morning. Back from the dead, his memories of it already
fading, he knows he’s lived more each night of his death
than in a hundred nights of living.