01 Feb Three Visits to a Hidden Tribe
Part 1: Making Waves
This is the story of a close friend and sometime lover of mine. We’ve known each other for a long time. I’ve always trusted her and her mind—even more than my own. But each time she left, she came back different. And I started to doubt.
You could say it all goes back twenty years ago, to when Esther first decided she had to go to South America. She’d heard about a barely-contacted tribe that was threatened by the logging industry. No study of any kind existed on them. She’d just landed Associate Professor and wanted to solidify her position with something big. Everyone told her this tribe wouldn’t have anything to do with her. They didn’t know how persuasive Esther could be.
I think maybe it goes back further, to when she first entered my life. I don’t remember how we met. I just remember her suddenly being there, in almost every moment. We just bonded that fast. She was one of those girls who was top of her class, yet still found time for sports and a social life. She was my date to the prom and while we danced she swore she’d make a difference. “I’m going to change humanity,” she said. “One mind at a time.” She ran for mayor at 19 and almost won. Then I went to college to study as a classicist and she followed behind, majoring in anthropology.
I liked classical languages because they worked my brain enough to block certain other things. Dreams I would have, any time I nodded off, of a pit deep in some forest. Mist billowed out of it like the fog machine in a bad horror movie and a dark figure was moving. A voice whispered from behind me, “Stop it.” When I told Esther about the dreams, she said, “Oh, that.” She told me I gave my brain too much leisure.
Anyway, we both got positions teaching at the same college, and that’s when she left for South America. She told me that “something is calling” to her down there, “something in the depths, beyond civilization.” She was gone for five months, living with this tribe. She returned to America in an almost entranced state. I called her as soon as I knew she was back, but she blew me off. She seemed compelled or driven in some way. “They don’t have a written language of their own,” she said. “Someone has to give them a voice.”
“Of course,” I said. “But they didn’t give you a deadline, surely?”
“They don’t think like us. I have to get it out while I can.”
She disappeared for another two months and came back with a manuscript. It hit the academic circles like an anvil. Just like that, she could phone in the rest of her career and never have to worry. Tenure track and all.
And in a way, she did phone in the rest of her career. I think she was trying to get something out of her system with that book and she never quite did. She couldn’t escape from what she’d experienced there. She could only keep rehashing it.
“They don’t have a concept of truth and falsehood as nearly all known civilizations do. History is fluid for them, based on present requirements. Since they have no written language, any facts that do not explain a visible reality are pruned out. For instance, the tribe is divided into three major villages. They said it was because the king had three sons. Each village member received a village tattoo, a sun, a bird, and a snake. I found an old man with a fourth brand, a fish. I was able to deduce that a fourth village had been destroyed at some point. So the fact that the king had a fourth son was no longer worth remembering. Nobody knows or cares how many sons the king in fact had. The phrase ‘in fact’ is meaningless to them.”
That paragraph alone generated a good many articles from her peers. For me, a later paragraph on the same theme resonated more. I couldn’t quite explain why, but as someone who knew Esther intimately it troubled me.
“They said they remembered me from a long time ago. I had developed enough rapport with them now to feel comfortable informing them they were mistaken and I had never been to their villages before. They said the old ones remembered me from their youth and that I had gone away for a long time. The youths had been taught about me their whole lives, they said. That they had never seen me before two months prior was irrelevant. I was now an accepted part of their lives, so I had to be explained. Even the youths and their parents now remembered being taught about me by the village elders. No-one could accuse them of lacking consistency. It is not that they were lying or making it all up. They now believed this version of reality.”
I asked her about it when we were able to spend some time together, after she’d finished her lecture tour and book-signing. I was already feeling more than a little neglected. I tried to understand, but I only got more annoyed when I thought about it. To be honest, it made me more aggressive than I should have been.
“So now that you’re a civilized woman again,” I told her, “you say these confused savages fabricated memories of you. But you know, they did let you into their villages when they refused contact with any and all outsiders before. How do you explain that? Perhaps they remembered you all along.”
She looked more disappointed with me than I’d ever seen her before. And trust me, I can be very disappointing. “Jack, I know what you’re doing. You’re poking around for nerves. This time, you might hit something critical. Leave it.”
“Oh come on,” I protested. “I thought it was solid anthropology. You’re right, I am just poking.”
Then she started to cry. She hadn’t been disappointed with me at all. She was disappointed with herself. I think, when you’re that disappointed with yourself, it’s depression by another name. She’d pushed herself too hard. At the time, I did as she asked and just left it.
She was never quite the same old Esther again. She always seemed distracted, torn away from the present by some problem she couldn’t articulate enough to begin solving. When she spoke in that state, she’d say things that gave me the creeps. Two I remember clearly. “Something’s happening to me,” she said, with just me and a mutual friend over coffee. She couldn’t or wouldn’t tell us what she meant. And, “None of you are what you think you are,” she muttered, staring into the distance at a colleague’s party. “Whatever do you mean?” some lady with a perm asked. She turned fiercely to the lady and told her, “If you could see the way I see, you’d understand, it’s all lies.”
Needless to say, the invitations to parties and social events dried up, although she seemed to take her isolation very well. Were it not for me and her lecture halls, she wouldn’t have had much human contact at all. The few times I visited her, her neighbors asked if she was okay. They told me, “Sir, she’s taken to talking to someone outside in her yard at nights, always near the electric lines. Nobody else is out there, I’m sure of it.”
Using a recording device to record ideas or lecture notes isn’t strange for an academic. Nor is talking to oneself. I justified it. Yet, it didn’t really sit right.
One time, when I’d cajoled her into meeting me at some awful Italian restaurant we used to like, she told me, “How sure can you be that I’m Esther and we’ve met before?”
“Well, we come here all the time, because we know the wait staff is dreadfully rude, the food is mediocre, and the music is the same Whitney Houston CD every time,” I said. I felt I knew what she was getting it and I wasn’t in the mood. Her moods had become so spacey by this time.
“You trust your memory,” she said, as though I’d said just what she’d wanted me to say. “Our whole sense of reality is based on that trust. You remember how I look, how I sound, and match it up with the present. We generalize. We call this a table and a million other things that are completely different objects. And then we aren’t even talking about the table. We’re talking about an image in our minds. It’s all lies.”
“If I replace the muffler on my car, is it then a completely new car, or the same car with a new muffler?” I posed to her. “Esther, you’ve had an experience. It’s changed you. But you’re still you and, as your one-man intervention, I’ll love you through this.”
“What about whales?” she asked.
“?” Whatever sound a pure question mark is, that’s the one I made.
“At some point, we all held to the view that everything in the sea is a fish. Fish lay eggs, have scales, cold blood. Then we found whales. They live in the sea, have fins, but they give birth, don’t have scales, and are warm-blooded. We’re stuck, now. Either we expand our definition of a fish to include whales, or we have to admit there’s something else in the sea other than fish.”
“And this fills you with existential angst?”
“I’m saying you might just be looking at the fish and neglecting the whales…”
I’m too glib and self-important to ever be flighty. So hopefully you’ll follow when I say: at that moment, I saw a glimmer of something in her eye that was something else, from someplace else. I don’t know what it was. Maybe I saw the whale. I didn’t like it.
I’m ashamed to say I stopped making excuses to reach out to her after that. Every moment with her was awkward and on edge. She’d ask me things like, “How do you know you aren’t just a brain in a vat and I’m toying with you about everything?” Have you ever spent time alone with someone you feel has the potential to be dangerous or could mean to do you harm, you’re just not sure? I didn’t believe Esther wanted to harm me. I just had that feeling around her. That nervous feeling that she could snap at any moment.
A few years after she’d returned, she contacted me sounding more lucid than she had in a long time. “Listen to me,” she said. “I didn’t put everything in the book. There was more.”
“Why would you have to hide anything?” I asked.
“Just listen. The tribe didn’t remember me as me. They remembered me in a very specific role. They wove me into their founding legend. I was one of two beings that stepped from the mists and claimed them the land as their own, driving out their enemies. They even ascribed some significance to my infinity pendant.”
“So? They make up history. It’s what a whole chunk of your book was about.”
“I didn’t bring my pendant with me, Jack. It was a turning point. That’s when I started to believe them. That’s not really the best way to put it. It wasn’t belief. You don’t have to believe in facts. That’s when I started actually remembering the events they told me about. It became part of my history. But I’m still a logical woman. Logically, both my remembered realities can’t be true. Which Esther am I, Jack?”
“I don’t think South American mist-people are as fond of iced caramel macchiatos as you are.”
“Always so glib. The things I remembered were incredible. The mist. The place so deep in the wilderness it’s beyond place.”
We grew further and further apart, as my conversations with her generally went through similar twists. Truthfully, the new Esther gave me the creeps. And we made very few new memories together.
Part 2: Going Back
Twenty years after her first voyage, she decided she had to go back. Even though I hadn’t heard from her in years, she contacted me to let me know this. Apprehension was the first thing I felt. I knew what the first trip had done to her. But I was so disgusted with the way she’d turned her back on everyone, I told her, “Do what you want.” All I’d had to do was tell her, “Don’t go.” I failed her. I think back to the dream and wonder if that’s what it meant.
Even after all that time, her announcement that she would revisit the tribe was a big deal in the anthropological community. She spun it as a follow-up, testing the theories and observations she put forward in her book. For those who’d accused her of not being scientific enough, she answered, “This is how anthropological science is done. It’s slow, methodical, spans decades.”
It was only after all the hullaballoo and near her departure date that I paid her a visit in person and pleaded with her not to go. I was too late.
“You’ll lose yourself there,” I told her.
“That’s been done,” she said. “I plan to find what I lost.”
I told her that although I wasn’t the sort of person to have feelings and intuitions, as she well knew, I felt reasonably certain I’d never see her again. She said she felt the same way. “You’ll always have your memories,” she said.
“Now who’s being glib?”
In the year that went by after her departure, I thought about her a lot. Yes, I wondered if she was alright, if she did find herself, if she was banging out a new book that would be as controversial as the first. It was more than that, though. I thought about her involuntarily. I’d begun having spontaneous dreams again, new ones. Dreams of her stepping from a dark fog. I was instinctively terrified of her in the dreams. I made the association. It was the same pit in the woods. Only darker now. Was she the same figure? Others were there and they were panicking. And someone whispered to me, “This is where it begins.”
I found myself questioning the integrity of my memories of her right around then. You understand what I mean by second-order memory, right? Memories of memories. I could remember previously remembering some memories I had of her. Others I couldn’t remember ever having remembered before. It’s as though they just showed up in my mind. I was tending to my tomato plants the first time I asked myself, “Who is she, really?” and realized I didn’t know.
In one of those memories, Esther was telling me, “Of course, I could’ve been created just yesterday with all these memories. You know all of our memories, thoughts, personality is entirely woven into the matter of the brain, right? It’s all physical. If not, we have to admit there’s something like a soul. A soul is a terrible thing, because it’s not in the causal chain of existence. It’s something else. How did Sartre put it, a ‘nothing-secreting nothingness’?”
I said something like, “I don’t know, I’ve never read Sartre.” And she told me I made a point of reading Sartre every day, “don’t be foolish.”
I really have never ready any Sartre, though, so where would this memory come from if not from her actually talking about Sartre? Except, I know this never happened. I know because in the memory, we were children and she was telling me all this from a hole the size of a grapefruit in my living room floor.
I have another memory that I went looking for her in Brazil, because she should’ve been back a long time by then. However, there’s no record on my passport or my credit cards that this flight ever happened. I just remember it so well, in such detail.
In the memory, I brought along two mutual friends. One of whom was from the linguistics department, so he could help with communication. We met up with some of Esther’s local contacts. They remembered her. They told us she’d asked for some guides to take her deeper into the forest. She had to go deeper, she told them. They told her it was too dangerous and that there was nothing out there anyway. She told them, “Nothing is what I’m looking for.” They remembered her saying that because she looked as crazy as she sounded. She told them she had to see the purple church. She showed them some satellite images where a part of the forest was always blurry. The guide said that spot was so deep, there weren’t even trails for miles. She wouldn’t listen when they told her there were no buildings in there at all.
I described the village then, and the guide was able and willing to take us there. The people of the village were suspicious of us, but not hostile. We showed them a picture of Esther and asked if they’d seen her. They said they had never seen her. Why would they lie? I thought about the conversation Esther and I had once and it hit me. I asked instead if they’d seen anyone who resembled the picture. They brought us to a hut on the outskirts of the village. Our guide interpreted for the villagers, telling us she had been cast out to this hut and she had been living there for a while. Then she was gone.
We searched the few possessions left in her hut. They were strange. A picture of a boy I’d never seen before, but somehow knew was a missing child. A Betty Boop figurine. Some newspaper clippings about immigration. It was all random junk except for a bundle of short “letters” written on scraps. We found them hidden under her pallet. They were all addressed to me.
An awful thing has happened since I left them. I have to figure it out. They behave as though nothing’s changed, but everything has. A pall oppresses the tribe’s villages. So much so, these are barely the same villages. Either through inability or unwillingness, they won’t acknowledge that they’ve been afflicted. The signs of disaster are everywhere in the settlement. The signs of hidden misery in their faces. They can barely make eye contact.
I’ve begun interrogating them whenever I can get one alone to find out what it was. They have the memories locked somewhere in their brains. If I can get them to refer to personal memory over social memory I can get a real answer. I’m starting to feel like a real anthropologist again.
I found the old man with the fish tattoo. He denied that I had been gone for twenty years, or at all. He swore by it. That wasn’t the part that disturbed me. It was this. He told me another tribe from deeper in the forest had been surrounding the village. They would come at night, without lights, and stay there until dawn. They stayed where it was perfect dark, so they were invisible. The keenest in the villages could hear them. Everyone could sense them. Standing in the dark, watching the whole night. Who were they? He didn’t know. There shouldn’t be any tribes they don’t know.
I started remembering. I remembered the mist, but not like I remembered it before. It was so frightening, Jack. It’s like a time traveler’s paradox. If the time traveler changes an event in the past, does he remember the two contradictory events? If so, his memory, his reality, is a different order of reality, flowing above the other. I have my memory of the mist as it was twenty years ago, stepping out of the light. And I have this memory of the mist now as the nothingness between the substances, this space of pure resentment against all that exists and coheres.”
I stay on the outskirts of the village because they’re afraid of me now. When I walked through the village, they mostly scatter. I see drawings in the soil of a snake-haired lady hovering over sleeping figures. Sometimes she was stepping out of a portal of some kind. I tried to ask about the drawings, but none would answer.
I cornered a hunter and asked him why there were only two villages now. He said that’s how it’s always been. When the king’s sons died, they made towns around the grave, to keep them at peace. What about the third? I asked. He said the third didn’t stay dead and had no peace.
I found out why they are such a morbid people now. I know why their thoughts are of death and decay and danger. I told them why. It’s because they are the ghosts of the people I met so long ago. They don’t exist. They’re my memories of the people. And I’ve changed. I was going to cut one to prove it, but they forced me back to my shelter.
A boy with testicular fortitude threw a rock at me today. He said I should go back to the pit I came from and he wouldn’t let me change his family like I changed the others. I was going to ask him what he meant, then I remembered something. I remembered coming from the place deep in the forest. The deepest point. I had to go back there. I told him I’d go if he’d take me.
That was it. I asked the guide if we could get back there. He said there was no way. Even the tribes don’t venture there. I had him ask the tribe for the boy mentioned in the letters. He said no boy of their tribe would go there; the boy did not exist.
I remembered all these events in such detail. The friends I’d supposedly gone with thought I was pranking them when I asked if they remembered. They said I was being ridiculous, of course we never went to Brazil. Why would we? they asked. So, I decided to go to Brazil for real. And I went alone.
Part 3: Letting Go
In real life, I didn’t know Esther’s contacts in Brazil. I’d gone through her notes and any communication she’d ever sent me. There was nothing. So I made the rounds, asking any of the guides if they’d seen her. I asked them if they knew what tribe it could be. Most of them had no idea. None of them had seen her. One guide said he knew the tribe I meant, but he had never seen her. I asked him if he knew of a church deeper in the woods or a hole. He said, “Whoever told you of that is no friend of yours.”
He took me to see the tribe. In my memory, it was a breeze getting from the city to the deep forest. This was not a breeze. The air was horribly humid, insects were everywhere, and the terrain made any vehicular assistance impossible. I kept reminding myself this was for Esther.
When at last we reached the tribe’s land, we were not exactly welcomed. They had weapons drawn on us immediately. The guide explained our purpose. He said they had never seen any white woman and certainly had never allowed one to live amongst them. I asked if they had years ago. I tried to explain how she’d written a whole book on them. The guide shook his head and communicated my message as best he could. Two of the tribesmen went into the foliage. “Just wait,” my guide said. They returned minutes later with an old man. He talked animatedly for a moment.
My guide told me, “He said he took a woman into the forest when he was a boy. She’d told him someone else would be coming. He’s offering to take you. I don’t think you should go, sir.”
Ask him if he knows who came out of the mist, I told him. He seemed reluctant, but he did as I asked. The old man seemed less animated speaking this time.
My guide told me, “Lies.”
On the way to the airport, I thought I saw her in a coffee shop, just reading and sipping coffee. I told myself I was just tired. I was seeing her everywhere. I let it go. I let her go.
Weeks later, I decided it was time to finish the grieving process. My mother had died a few years ago. I still had all of her stuff in storage. That included photo albums. I dug them all out and flipped through photo after photo, remembering good times and awkward. There were no bad times. They only feel bad when you’re that age. Then I hit the days when those memories should be with Esther. I couldn’t find a single photo with her. “Just like my family,” I thought to myself. “Always taking pictures at the wrong time.” But it was alarmingly consistent. She wasn’t in any picture. I flipped ahead to prom. Some other girl was holding my arm. I recognized her. Mary Elizabeth Reilly. I barely knew her.
I put the albums away. I suppose I could’ve had recourse to other material. Letters, any journals I’d kept—if any—but again, I let it go. I realized I didn’t know exactly when Esther had come into my life. I had all these memories and I don’t know when they were created. They’re slowly fading, which is why I felt the need to write this all down now. I don’t know what her endgame was. What would’ve happened to me had I gone deeper? Oblivion, I think. I was suddenly very glad she was gone.