The gringos saw Bobby as retarded, a halfwit. But in Amazonia along the Upper Takchinga River, among the Ranaweera, he was treated as special because he was different. The Ranaweera know that at birth the spirits infuse certain babies with extraordinary vision and that they grow up in two worlds, this one and the spirit world.
Bobby’s grandfather and grandmother, the Rev. and Mrs. Henry March, she a registered nurse, had begun building the Upper Takchinga mission in 1919, and had dedicated their adult lives to mastering the Ranaweera tongue so that the Lord’s word could be delivered in illustrated Bibles to be printed in their dialect. While the Rev. Henry March was a quick and decisive man of high energy, his wife was slow, steady and even-tempered. The Ranaweera feared him but grew fond and trusting of his wife. She operated a very basic clinic where she instructed Ranaweera women in simple hygiene, first aid and midwifery.
The Marches had raised their daughter Sarah until school age, when she was sent to live with Mrs. March’s sister in San Diego. In her senior year of high school, with the help of her sailor boyfriend, Sarah got in trouble and the week after graduation was returned pregnant to the Takchinga mission. Damaged goods, as they say. Little Bobby’s birth was difficult. Sarah suffered labor for a miserable three days until, under the full moon and kerosene lanterns, she at last dilated enough. First came the placenta, then the baby. Her mother and two Ranaweera women she’d trained helped Sarah and the newborn. Under the lanterns amid swirling moths Mrs. March cut and unwrapped the cord from the baby’s little neck and passed him to Pasqua and Natividad, whose actual names were Sha and Shoi, who gently washed and wrapped him in a cotton blanket, while Mrs. March tried to staunch Sarah’s bleeding with gauze pads. Rev. March prayed, but on the second day Sarah died.
At the Reverend’s insistence, Ranaweera men dug the grave on the little rise behind the yuccas and bananas, a strange and ugly task, as only enemies were buried in the ground. When one of their own died the Ranaweera properly cremated the body at night. There was feasting. Remaining bones were gathered in the morning, crushed with a mortar and packed into a bamboo vessel. Then at the next full moon another feast was held and the crushed bone dust sprinkled in the fermented yucca and drunk by relatives. Covering with dirt was what you did to something putrid, although Rev. March had tried unsuccessfully for twenty-two years to change this belief, along with so many other practices he reckoned as filthy and savage.
Just a few short days after her daughter’s death, Mrs. March was felled by a fever. Rev. March sent a canoe downriver to the Catholic mission at Leticia for sulfa powder, but the return was days late for Mrs. March. And so it fell upon Sha and Shoi to wet nurse and raise Bobby. Again Rev March sent two Ranaweera downriver—this time to buy four milk goats for the baby. But before Mrs. March’s clinic could be fenced-in as a goat shed, a big cat took two of the goats. Nevertheless, Sha and Shoi, Bobby’s surrogate mothers, quickly grew to love the little baby. They would stroke his fine blond hair and kiss his fine long eyelashes while crooning Ranaweera lullabies. He slept in their hammocks in the mission lodge where they called him, because he was so white, Talolowera, which in the Ranaweera language means Termite Person.
Without the soothing presence of his wife, the Rev. Henry March soon deteriorated into a short-tempered, irritable, implacable alcoholic, who all but ignored his grandson. Without a father, mother, a birth certificate, much less a passport, and with a world war raging, it was impossible to send the baby stateside. Besides, who would accept a little bastard? Then, too, the Reverend was loath to leave the mission, even though half the Ranaweera had already drifted away, returning to their semi-nomadic lives in the jungle. March had completed work on the Book of Matthew, and was halfway through the Book of Mark, which would take another two years. His sole purpose was to finish all the gospels in his lifetime, despite the burdens of his daughter’s disgrace, his wife’s death, and now the bother of raising this half-wit boy he viewed as God’s test. But, by God, he would finish the books of Mark, and Luke, and John, and nothing would stop him, by Jesus Christ, nothing!
Bobby did not begin talking until his fourth year and, understandably, his first language was, to his grandfather’s disgust, Ranaweera. “No Bobby, do not say ‘pafwa’ say ‘fire.’ Can you say ‘fire’? “No Bobby. I am your grandfather, you call me Grandfather. Don’t say ‘Bui,’ say G r a n d f a t h e r.”
Slow of wit and of speech, the boy found this utterly confusing and continued to blend his Bui’s words with The People’s when speaking with his grandfather. With the Ranaweera Talolowera was not confused. Sha and Shoi told and retold the stories of The People and sung over and over again the songs all Ranaweera learned.
When he was five years old Bobby fell ill with fever. The Rev. March, drunk, entered the lodge to check on Bobby and saw him in Shoi’s hammock. She cuddled him against her, cooing the song for sick children, stroking his hot little forehead, and gently kneading his little penis, the Ranaweera mothers’ way of easing little boys to sleep. The Reverend exploded, roughly snatching the boy from Shoi and then slapping her face over and over again. “You vile instrument of Satan, get thee gone and never again show your filthy perdition. Go. I curse thy filthy name. Go, damn you, damn you, damn you, devil!”
A great wail went up in the lodge as Rev. March dragged the febrile boy to his own hut, placed him in a hammock and read aloud from the Book of Job, standing and weeping all the while. If Henry March had ever had any affection for Bobby, it was now gone. No, his grandson was to him as the boils God had sent down to Job. His burden was to feed, clothe, and bring Bobby up as a Christian while laboring on the translations of the Gospels. Whether punishment for a past sin or God’s test, he would find a way to expiate this and complete the Lord’s work.
By morning, many more Ranaweera had slipped away. But Sha remained and, while the Reverend snored, a Bible and an empty aguardiente bottle on the puncheon floor by his hammock, she eased past and picked up Talolowera and returned to the Ranaweera lodge on the mission grounds to care for him.
Tinka, Sha’s brother, was fond of Talolowera and gave to him a baby spider monkey. In a short time the boy and the monkey had bonded and were inseparable. Mission supplies and mail came from Iquitos via small airplane to Leticia; thence three days upriver by canoe five times a year during dry season. After the war, the Winters Institute for Missionary Services sent a young man to the mission with a surplus shortwave radio and generator to set up a communications station. However, acquiring fuel for the generator was so onerous that Rev. March ignored the radio schedule and sent word to the Institute that the Ranaweera had stolen the wire antenna and parts of the generator. That radio would put the Institute right here in the mission to interfere with his work, to spy on him. Hunters and rubber workers would drift in from the jungle wanting to use the radio. News of the outside world was of no interest to the Reverend now that the war was over. No, this mission did not need any damned radio interfering with the Lord’s work. Matthew and most of Mark had been translated without any radio, hadn’t they?
At the Institute’s headquarters the Reverend’s translations of the book of Mark had raised skepticism. Rev. March seemed to have ascribed an Old Testament harshness to the apostle’s writing; moreover, he appeared to be having difficulty completing his task. He was two years behind schedule. The Institute’s Upper District administrators’ concern for Rev. March prompted the Institute to insist that Rev. March visit the Institute’s headquarters near Iquitos once each year. This infuriated the Reverend, but there was nothing to do but comply; they were impervious to reason. His chief argument was that the Ranaweera would steal the mission blind in his absence.
For the first years of the required visits, the Institute sent one of the staff to temporarily replace Rev. March. Each time he was away the visiting administrator would get the radio station back online. But shortly after the Rev. March’s return something always happened to take the station off the air.
The visiting administrators’ reports always mentioned Bobby. “Reverend March’s grandson appears generally healthy and happy, but exhibits mental retardation: difficulties with speech, inability to learn simple prayers or even the alphabet. He does, however function well in his assigned tasks, caring for the station’s goats and chickens, as well as a pet monkey.”
The Reverend took great care to dress up the station for these bothersome visits. The inoperable radio would be brought out and dusted off for repair. Empty aguardiente bottles were hidden in the jungle to be stolen by the Ranaweera; Bobby would have his hair cut Christian style; and Sha was ordered to see that Bobby wore a shirt and sandals at all times during the administrator’s stay and sleep in the mission house, not the Ranaweera lodge. And he was to speak only English to the administrator.
Sha faithfully saw to this, not because she feared the Rev. but because she held her little Termite in such veneration and love. It was clear that Talolowera lived in both the spirit world and this world. The words of Ranaweera songs sung by him differed because the spirits were directing messages to the Ranaweera through this little Termite. For instance “Na chagra, potchee tom…” the song for fishing “Come fish to the spear” came out “Ta chagra, hushee som” which had nothing to do with talking to the fish; no this meant “Spear fly fast.” Perhaps the Shibas, enemies on the Urulali River who fought with spears, were planning a raid. The Ranaweera men then kept watch on the Shibas and days later a raiding party crossed into Ranaweera lands and was ambushed. One Shiba was killed; the others driven off. The elders asked Sha to bring Termite into the forest for the singing of the dead enemy song. A hole was dug and the detested enemy buried while the song was sung. “Now the strength of this one is our strength. We see the spirit of the jaguar, he sees the worm.” However, when Talolowera sang the song the words came out as “Many worms monkey tree.” On the way back one of the Ranaweera brought down a howler monkey with a dart. The dead monkey fell across a huge rotting log filled with grubs, a splendid harvest for the victory feast.
Talolowera might be Bui’s grandson, but to the Ranaweera he was theirs through and through. At puberty he was ceremoniously adopted by The People and made son to Watchi, the tribe’s shaman. As Henry March lay in drunken slumber every Ranaweera of the Takchinga Band stepped before Talolowera and blew breath into his mouth. Watchi then lay Talolo naked across his lap and under the light of pine splinters with a large thorn and lampblack tattooed magic symbols on his buttocks and then huge images of owl eyes on his shoulder blades.
One hot jungle morning Bobby was in the shed dreamily milking Chichichiva. Squatting by the goat with his little monkey on his shoulder, his forehead against the soft, sweet-smelling fur, he repeatedly pulled her teats over the milk pot. Henry March happened by and heard Bobby singing Jesus Loves Me but in Ranaweera, not English. “Damn that chuckle-headed little shit,” he thought and stomped into the goat shed. There shirtless on the milking stool he beheld the two tattooed owl eyes. “God Almighty, what is that?” he yelled, startling the boy and the goat. He touched the tattoo, spit on his hand and tried to rub it off. “You heathen bastard, you fucking savage, God damn you!” he shouted. He tried to raise another curse but his anger was so great that his throat closed on the larynx and only a hiss of air escaped his lips. From a peg he grabbed a leather lead and began wildly thrashing Bobby’s back, but striking the monkey instead. Bobby swayed and the leather lead cut into Chichichiva as she kicked the milk pot. Milk splashed up onto his grandfather’s reddened eyes and on his face as goats bleated and panicked, chickens scurried and flapped, filling the air with dust. Bobby, his back cut and bleeding, lay in the straw, tears coursing down his dusty cheeks as he clutched his dying little friend. His grandfather stood over the boy thrashing his side, but soon the fire inside him subsided. He threw down the strap and strode out of the goat shed.
The continuing radio problems at the Takchinga station, suspicions of Henry March’s drunkenness, and the mired and confused translations so perplexed the Board at the Institute that they sent a plane to bring in Henry March for a serious consultation. It was hoped that a good old-fashioned ass-chewing might bring Henry around. His sacrifices and many years of service to the Institute were highly appreciated and rendered him worthy of special consideration. Another factor affecting Henry’s fate was the murder of five missionaries by the Chipavowera thirty miles away on the Nipo River two years earlier. The details of this tragedy had been widely publicized and a motion picture dramatizing the incident had been very well-received by audiences in America. This energized popular interest in the Winters Institute. Very large sums had been donated. Besides, the Rev. Henry March was the only clergyman fluent in Ranaweera and trained in biblical translation.
Unexpectedly, the administrator arrived late one morning, shortly after Bobby’s thrashing. The canoe bringing him from Leticia had been spotted by mission Ranaweera and Henry had just enough time to hide his aguardiente and summon Sha, whom he instructed to dress Bobby in a shirt and sandals. The administrator explained the summons and assured Henry March that he would be returned within a few days. Henry, now paranoid, explained that the radio had been stolen, and persuaded the administrator to return to Iquitos with him; that his grandson could ensure the safety of the station for a few days. Before leaving he gave instructions to Bobby.
“This is the pantry. It is to stay locked. If Ranaweera or anyone asks you for corn meal or beans you say ‘no.’ The pantry stays locked. No one goes into the pantry. No one unlocks the pantry. If an animal tries to get into the pantry, shoot it with the shotgun. If a person tries to get into the pantry, tell them to stop or you will shoot them with the shotgun. Do you understand?”
“If Sha or Watchi or anyone else asks you to get them beans from the pantry what do you do, Bobby?”
“I say no.”
“That’s right. What if a monkey or peccaries try to get into the pantry?
“Shoot them with shotgun.”
“That’s right. What if some person tries to break the lock and get in the pantry?”
“Tell them ‘stop.’”
“What if they don’t stop?”
“Shoot with shotgun.”
“Okay, Bobby. Do your chores and say your prayers. Sha has plenty of beans to cook for you and you can fish while I’m gone. I will be back soon. Do everything right and I will have a candy for you. Bye-bye.”
Within a week Rev. March returned, in a rotten mood and very drunk. He had to be helped from the canoe to his hammock by two Ranaweera. Bobby approached and asked his grandfather for the promised candy. “Get out of here, damn you. Didn’t you hear me? Get outta here, you simpleton.
“I want candy, Grandfather.”
“No candy. Now git!”
The next morning Bobby was carrying the milk pot to the kitchen when he saw Henry March fumbling with the key ring at the pantry.
“Stop,” the boy dutifully said.
“Shut up and get that milk pot out of the sun,” the Reverend snarled.
The boom of the shotgun echoed over the river until it was overtaken by the cacophony from the birds and monkeys. The Reverend March lay dead on his face before the still-locked pantry.
The Ranaweera found poor Bobby trying to explain himself to his senseless grandfather.
You tell me, “No stop then shoot.” I tell you to stop, Grandfather. You no stop.”
The Ranaweera deliberated how best to dispose of the Reverend’s body: as an honored tribesman, by cremation, or as a putrid Christian, by burial. In the end, The People decided to follow the Reverend’s own preferences, burying him in a shallow hole—his gospels with him.
Published Moon Magazine 14 June 2015
© Gary Ives