The rain is not
letting up. The anthropologist moves his flashlight beam
over the walls of the priestess’ hut, making random designs
on the thatching.
“I don’t understand
why you use these fake lights,” says the priestess. “There
is a reason for darkness. What can you see with your light
that you don’t already know is there?”
“Sometimes I forget
what’s there,” says the anthropologist.
“You must have a
He shines the light
in her eyes and takes some minute pleasure in her squint.
“You’re right. I was remembering how only yesterday I
watched a gentle and beautiful priestess perform a jaguar
dance around the fire. Now I see she’s an executioner.”
“In that case your
memory’s just fine. It’s your light that’s flawed.” She
holds out her hand. “Let me show you.”
The priestess slides the beam over her calves
and knees, up and across her rounded hips, circling her
lower parts, flashing between her soft brown thighs. His
eyes follow the motion of the light, but it’s the shadows
that imprint themselves. The light, he decides, is only as
good as the darkness around it.
She tosses the light back to him.
“Anyway, what is
there for you to remember when all you do is take notes?”
she asks. “All those times I was dancing, you were just
leaning against a tree scratching in your notebook. You
never noticed how I was dancing just for you—and laughing at
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s no such thing
as a jaguar dance, it’s just something I made up to get you
to dance with me. But you never did. This is why you must
be beheaded. Maybe then you will dance.”
“Limply,” he points
“That’s better than
“I thought you said
I was going to be killed for learning too much.”
She shakes her
head. “Probably not.”
“Then I’m free to
“No, you’re still
going to be killed, but not for the reason I told you.”
“Then why? For
stealing your people’s spirits with my notes?”
“Sometimes you talk
like an anthropologist. Very disappointing.”
“You insist on
“Okay.” She drags
a finger down her round cheek and sighs. “Because any man
who sleeps with the priestess must be executed.”
He shines the
flashlight beam on her face again, tries to read if she’s
joking. “But I haven’t slept with you.”
“Now you know the
reason I had you brought to me.” She turns away and lets
one arm fall over the side of the hammock.
watches her loose wrist swing with the hammock as he waits
for his anger to finish rising. “You shouldn’t have lied to
me,” he says.
“You should have
taken better notes. Then I wouldn’t have had to,” she
says. “At least you are being killed for a good reason.”
She moves her wrist to her forehead.
“And what if I
don’t sleep with you?”
“Then you’ll be
killed for the first reason.”
learned too much?”
“Yes. And then at
least I won’t have lied to you after all.”
thinks about this. “So I’m down to two choices,” he says.
“I’ll be killed either for something I’ve already done or
for something I haven’t yet done.”
“Why should you be
different from anyone else?”
He shakes his
head. “Sometimes you talk like a priestess,” he says.
“It’s one of my
He stands up and turns his back to her,
shining his flashlight out into the rain and the pitch-black
forest just beyond his beam. Should he make a run for it?
He’s days away from any road or passable river, a week or
more from the airstrip. In the darkness he’d be easy game
for jaguars and anacondas or the night versions of a hundred
other animals that are harmless in daylight. What good
would a notebook and flashlight be to him out there?
Still, what choice
does he have? He’s trapped between capital offenses.
It occurs to him
that maybe the priestess sent away the guards on purpose, to
make him consider his manner of death and reach his own
decision. Does he set off alone, or die at the hands of
others? Does he leave his fate in nature’s hands or
If he wants to
live, and he does, the difference, he decides, lies only in
the quality of hope.
In that case
there’s no question. He’s been a professional
anthropologist, then a lapsed and lazy one, and now he’ll be
a dead lover. Out in the rain forest, in the middle of the
night, he’d be nothing but a piece of meat.
He can’t save his
life, but he can extend it. Before this lapse in judgment,
he’d measured his life in timely departures. Now he must
survive by strategic delay. He’ll have to convince the
priestess that they are moving ever closer to satisfying her
desire. Small reversals are possible, so long as they are
offset by what follows. If the reversal is too distracting
or the delay so long that boredom overtakes it, she’ll lose
her desire and have him beheaded for notetaking. On the
other hand, if he satisfies her fully, he’ll be beheaded for
sleeping with a priestess. It’s the art of foreplay, with
He looks at the
priestess’ nude body. He has watched her dance, admired
her, and felt an ache he knew even then was dangerous. He
can no longer distract himself with notetaking.
“Is there room in
that hammock for two?” he asks.
The priestess turns on her side and slides
her hips over. “I thought you’d never ask.”
climbs in next to her, armed with the only things left for
his defense: his notes and flashlights, and the stories and
shadows they make.