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I Was Half Asleep. Yet I could sense people moving around me. As if from a great distance, I heard the soft rustle of bare feet over the packed dirt of the hut, the coughing and clearing of throats, and the faint voices of women. Leisurely I opened my eyes. It was not quite dawn. In the semi-darkness I could see Ritimi and Tutemi, their naked bodies bent over the hearths where the embers of the night's fires still glowed. Tobacco leaves, water-filled gourds, quivers with poisoned arrowheads, animal skulls, and bundles of green plantains hung from the palm-frond ceiling, appearing to be suspended in the air below the rising smoke.
Yawning, Tutemi stood up. She stretched, then bent over the hammock to lift Hoaxiwe into her arms. Giggling softly, she nuzzled her face against the baby's stomach. She mumbled something unintelligible as she pushed her nipple into the boy's mouth. Sighing, she eased herself back into her hammock.
Ritimi pulled down some dried tobacco leaves, soaked them in a calabash bowl filled with water, then took one wet leaf and, before rolling it into a wad, sprinkled it with ashes. Placing the quid between her gum and lower lip, she sucked at it noisily while preparing two more. She gave one to Tutemi, then approached me. I closed my eyes, hoping to give the impression that I was asleep. Squatting at the head of my hammock, Ritimi ran her tobacco-soaked finger, wet with her saliva, between my gum and lower lip, but did not leave a quid in my mouth. Chuckling, she edged toward Etewa, who had been watching from his hammock. She spat her wad into her palm and handed it tohim. A soft moan escaped her lips as she placed the third quid in her mouth and lowered herself on top of him.
The fire filled the hut with smoke, gradually warming the chilly damp air. Burning day and night, the hearth fires were the center of each dwelling. The smoke stains they left on the thatch ceiling set one household apart from the next, for there were no dividing walls between the huts. They stood so close together that adjacent roofs overlapped each other, giving the impression of one enormous circular dwelling. There was a large main entrance to the entire compound with a few narrow openings between some huts. Each hut was supported by two long and two shorter poles. The higher side of the hut was open and faced a clearing in the middle of the circular structure, while the lower, exterior side of the hut was closed with a wall of short poles wedged against the roof.
A heavy mist shrouded the surrounding trees. The palm fronds, hanging over the interior edge of the hut, were silhouetted against the grayness of the sky. Etewa's hunting dog lifted its head from under its curled-up body and, without quite waking, opened its mouth in a wide yawn. I closed my eyes, dozing off to the smell of green plantains roasting in the fires. My back was stiff and my legs ached from having squatted for hours the day before, digging weeds in the nearby gardens.
I opened my eyes abruptly as my hammock was vigorously rocked back and forth and gasped as a small knee pressed into my stomach. Instinctively I pulled the hammock's sides over me to protect myself from the cockroaches and spiders that invariably fell from the thick palm-thatched roof whenever the poles holding up the huts were shaken.
Giggling, the children crawled on top and around me. Their brown naked bodies were soft and warm against my skin. As they had done almost every morning since I had first arrived, the children ran their chubby hands over my face, breasts, stomach, and legs, coaxing me to identify each part of my anatomy. I pretended to sleep, snoring loudly. Two little boys snuggled against my sides and the little girl on top of me pressed her dark head under my chin. They smelled of smoke and dirt.
I had not known a word of their language when I first arrived at their settlement deep in the jungle between Venezuela and Brazil. Yet that had not been an obstacle to the eighty or so people occupying the shabono in accepting me. For the Indians, not to understand their language was tantamount to being aka boreki dumb. As such, I was fed, loved, and indulged; my mistakes were excused or overlooked as if I were a child. Mostly my blunders were acknowledged by boisterous outbursts of laughter that shook their bodies until they rolled on the ground, tears brimming in their eyes.
The pressure of a tiny hand against my cheek stopped my reveries. Texoma, Ritimi's and Etewa's four-year-old daughter, lying on top of me, opened her eyes and, moving her face closer, began to flutter her stubby eyelashes against mine. "Don't you want to get up?" the little girl asked, running her fingers through my hair. "The plantains are ready."
I had no desire to abandon my warm hammock. "I wonder how many months have I been here?" I asked.
"Many," three voices answered in unison.
I could not help smiling. Anything beyond three was expressed as many, or more than three. "Yes, many months," I said softly.
"Tutemi's baby was still sleeping inside her belly when you first arrived," Texoma murmured, snuggling against me.
It was not that I had ceased being aware of time, but the days, weeks, and months had lost their precise boundaries. Here only the present mattered. For these people only what happened each day amidst the immense green shadows of the forest counted. Yesterday and tomorrow, they said, were as undetermined as a vague dream, as fragile as a spider's web, which was visible only when a streak of sunlight sears through the leaves.Shabono. Copyright © by Florinda Donner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.