Their breaths return to normal, and then
to something slower than normal, accompanied by the pleasing
feeling they are just barely alive. The flashlight has
fallen to the floor, its beam gone dim.
It is a long time before either of them
have the desire to talk again. The priestess resists the
urge to cry by speaking first.
“Any last words?” she asks, sniffing once.
The anthropologist sighs out the last of
his bodily tension. “I also have a confession to make,” he
The priestess is disappointed by this,
believing that he has fallen into the standard pattern of
doomed anthropologists, confessing their wrongs, pleading
for forgiveness, groveling before anyone who’ll listen.
She’d thought he was different.
“I made up all my stories,” he says.
She isn’t sure what to make of this.
“They’re all lies?” she asks.
“You could say that. But they’re the best
I could do with a few small pieces of truth.”
The priestess doesn’t seem to believe him,
so he opens his notebook and flips through the pages for
her. Most are blank. A few have drawings of dancing stick
figures. A few have random scratches that even in the dim
light do not seem to constitute a written language.
“And all those times I leaned against a
tree and seemed to be taking notes, I only pretended to take
notes because I liked to watch you dance,” he says.
A tear darts down the priestess’s cheek.
“It’s a shame that you slept with me,” she says.
He wipes the tear with his thumb. “I
don’t mind it, really. It was worth it.”
“You were willing to die just to sleep
“Yes,” he says, because now he knows it’s
“Then it doesn’t matter that your stories
were lies. I believed them anyway.”
“That’s why you are the priestess.”
She lays her head on his chest. A wave of
heavier rain sweeps through the forest and passes over
them. For a few minutes, it’s useless to talk.
When the rain quiets again, the priestess
stirs. “Are you finished collecting your thoughts?”
The anthropologist smiles and reaches for
his flashlight. He bangs it against his palm to get a new
It is still dark, and the rain falls
At dawn, the last few drops of rain strike
the top of the rain forest canopy. They fall through the
puzzle of leaves, rolling, spattering, diving, until at last
they strike the forest floor and vanish in the mud.
The warriors appear at the door again.
The priestess turns her head away to hide the tears.
“Take him,” she says, and the warriors
grab the anthropologist and pull him out of the hammock,
leaving the priestess swaying by herself, facing the wall.
“I am a collector too,” she whispers
He stops and looks back at her shoulder
and her softly swaying hip. “Of what?”
“Anthropologists,” she says. “Because
sometimes even a priestess forgets.”
The warriors yank him through the door.
He is led out into a ceremonial clearing where the villagers
have formed a circle. Someone beats a drum. At the center
of the circle is a block of wood, worn smooth on top and
still wet from the rain. A tall man stands casually next to
it, his belly hanging over his loincloth. He is holding the
anthropologist’s machete, twisting it with his wrist, making
lazy designs in the air. He greets the anthropologist with
a nod and a shy half-smile.
The warriors tie the anthropologist’s
hands behind his back, then press him to his knees in front
of the executioner’s table.
The anthropologist feels the cool, wet
wood against his cheek and smells the plantains that have
been mashed on this table in preparation for a feast. He
closes his eyes. The drumming stops. The executioner draws
in a breath.
The anthropologist feels a very slight
irritation on his head and neck that slowly turns to
warmth. He has time to open his eyes one last time, to see
some small part of the world.
Though a pair of hands holds his
head to the block, he is able to turn his eyes to the source
of the warmth. It is a ray of sunlight, the first he’s seen
in weeks. Somehow the tiers of tropical clouds have aligned
their tiny breaks. Or else a vertical column of wind has
punched a hole. He wonders at his good fortune.
Just as the executioner’s
machete—the anthropologist’s own—swings down on his bared
neck, the anthropologist smiles, knowing he is at last in
the light, and that his body will soon begin to dance.