Love Letters to Earth

by Henry Quicke








 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 poor memory.”

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 you, too.”

“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 out.

“That’s better than nothing.”

“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 go?”

“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.”

“Why then?”

“You insist on knowing everything!”

“Humor me!”

“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.

The anthropologist 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.”

“Because I’ve learned too much?”

“Yes.  And then at least I won’t have lied to you after all.”

The anthropologist 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 duties.”

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 humans’?

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 consequences.

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.”

The anthropologist 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.