Shimiba’s Leave-taking, by Eugene Garber
Head Note for “Shimiba’s Leave-taking.”
“Shimiba’s Leave-taking” is the third chapter in a novel entitled O Amazonas Escuro. The protagonist, an ethnographer called only K, lives with a tribal people, the Roirúa-peo, in their woshana, a circular compound on the bank of the upper Negro, which joins the Solimões at Manaus in Brazil to form the Amazon. K’s careful reports have earned him great credit among anthropologists who favor the etic (objective) analysis of culture. Among those who favor the emic (interior) experience of culture the tenacity of K’s claims have earned him the paradoxical position of an invaluable archenemy. K, at this point in the novel, is a lover of boys. Among the Roirúa-peo is an indigene of unusual powers and perceptions, Korakama, who has traveled downstream and has some knowledge of whites (non-humans).
Each chapter of O Amazonas Escuro is recounted in relation to a philosophical work; in this case, Plato's dialogues concerning the death of Socrates.
K cannot quell the dreams that rise up into his psyche—from the tropical heat and moisture, he believes. Emic. He crosses a chasm on a bridge made of three logs bound together with vines. There are no handrails. He teeters and waves his outstretched arms like a novice equilibrist. On the other side he finds an orchid perched on a Jará palm singing a song of passage to the ancient harmonies of a lyre. The orchid transforms itself into an Athenian bark with a scrolled prow. Oars strike the wine-dark sea. Wand-bearers hold aloft auroral bursts of bright pink that waft gently in the breeze. In the stern beside the helmsman sits the lyre player. From a high promontory comes a plangent shout that beats against the headland. “The ship is coming from Delos!”
K has seen this old woman before, Shimiba, but until this day she has kept to her hammock. Now with the aid of a wooden staff she stands in the middle of the woshana. The sun exposes her age pitilessly. Large bald patches mar her head. Time and the blows of cudgels have denuded much of her scalp. The face is a mask of weathered skin, the eyes enlarged and rheumy, the nose flat without septum, the sunken mouth virtually lipless. The neck is sinking into the hollow above the ancient dugs, the sternum lumpy, the ribs protruding unevenly. The concave belly has drawn away as if in shame from the withered labia. The limbs are articulated sticks covered with brown paper. The voice, however, is surprisingly penetrating and has considerable range, rising from a throaty grukking like the toucan to the high screed of the tinamou.
“The boat has come again to the river bank,” says Shimiba.
A widening circle gathers around the old woman. The children give up their games with arrows and stones and squeeze in beside their elders. In front of Shimiba stands Korakama. They confront each other like two warriors prepared for a chest-pounding contest.
Korakama strikes his chest vehemently. “Nobody saw any boat.”
Shimiba strikes the ground with her stick. “Do you think you can see it with the eyes of your body?” Shimiba pretends to pluck out her eyes and throw them in the dirt.
“Then the boat has come.” Korakama speaks as though humoring a child. “Where are you going in the boat?”
“Yo-ee-ay-o!” The crowd stirs.
“Back. Where the boat takes me.”
“No! You have to die and be burned. Then you will be a cloud and go up.”
“You, Korakama, have been too much with non-humans. When you die your ghost will stay near the woshana like a stray dog. You are afraid to die. You are afraid your soul will blow away on the wind. Your soul is a dog.”
“You make me angry, old woman. I will get my machete and cut your head off. Then you will die and be burned like the rest and no boat will take you.”
“The boat is here. It is coming from my birth. I go back. Look at woshana and sky. Round. Round. Round. I go back. If you listen, the dog will leave you. It will stop barking in your soul.” Shimiba bores a small hole in the ground with the end of her stick and bends down a little. “Listen! Do you hear?”
The ship has been hauled ashore by a flock of ibises. Up on the promontory several friends gather around the old man. A naked youth lies beside him. Between K and the scene hangs a diaphanous curtain swaying in the breeze.
“Why should I fear death? Tell me, Archilous, if the lyre plays and then I break it or rend the strings, what remains to you?”
“My memory of the melody.”
“And when death consumes your memory and the memory of all others, what remains?”
“Even numbers or odd numbers?”
“Yes, but if a two and a three advance toward the same place, what will happen?”
“One will give way to the other.”
“What then of the numbers that remain from the broken lyre? Will they be in conflict?”
“No. They will be in harmony, advancing and retreating as their nature requires.”
“Then harmony of numbers must precede the lyre and live after it. It does not require strings or fingers to pluck.”
K feels fingers on his forehead. They seem to be searching for a chord. But it is not fingers. It is a spider. He knocks it to the ground. A good thing, a deadly Brazilian armed spider.
The circle is quiet. Every head is bent down toward the hole in the ground. All look and listen. And then there is a sudden recoil, all shrinking back except Korakama. K from the vantage of his height strains forward. A large scarab appears at Shimiba’s feet crawling slowly toward her gnarled toes. The creature’s head waggles slowly while the lyrate mandibles test the air with a series of exploratory pinches. When it reaches Shimiba’s left big toe, it probes the crusty flesh, turns slowly about and begins to make its way clumsily through the powdery dirt toward Korakama, who holds his ground. “You dropped it from your stinking vagina, you old hag.”
“Be quiet! Listen!”
K and all the others bend down toward the beetle. There is a ticking and rustling. Or do they only dream it?
The scarab moves a little faster, as though it has detected some effluent from Korakama’s flesh, the fragrant moisture of sweat, or tiny motes of dander swimming in the sunny air. Korakama stands his ground. “I hear nothing!” But even as he speaks the circle has taken up the sound of the scarab. The men riffle their ribs with their knuckles. The chambers of their chests give back a little scherzo: two and two, and two and two. The women make triads, clicking their tongues against the roofs of their mouths: tuk tuk and tuk, tuk tuk and tuk.
“The beetle is calling me to the boat. Let me go!”
“If then harmony does not perish with the lyre, how much less will the soul perish with the body, for the soul is not like harmony, which is a compound. It is an essence.”
“I see your soul like a bright bird above your head.”
The old man passes his hand over the eyes of the youth lying beside him. “Do not look directly at it, Agapitho. There is danger in looking at an essence. Just as you would behold an eclipse of the sun only in a mirror or on the surface of water, so behold only the reflection of the soul. Or look in the eye of Lachmino. Perhaps you will see it there.”
K fights futilely against the dream, his eyes stinging, the scrim before the death bed twisting like blades of light.
“No. In my eye is only the dread bearer, the horrible Ganymede.”
“Do not say horrible, Lachmino. When the bearer comes with the cup of poison, you must treat him with respect. For he bears also the insignia of the State and the Law.”
“Do not tell me that the State and the Law are essences.”
“I grant you, Lachmino, that they are not. But they are my material origin. They nourished me from birth. I cannot deny them now. But let us turn from this matter and in the time we have left together sing like the swan, which is sacred to Apollo and has the gift of prophesying the good things of another world.”
“Get out of my way.” Shimiba thrusts her stick out and strikes the ground. For a moment Korakama hesitates and then steps aside. The scarab pauses and waves its mandibles. Shimiba begins to make her way slowly toward the closed gate of the woshana. K follows with the rest. He thinks of picking up the scarab and folding it in his hat, a fine specimen. But K is not a naturalist. He admires the determinedly etic focus of natural science, but the objectivity of science is established, its battles against religion and subjectivity won. His job is to bring the same rigor to the science of man.
“Who will open the gate for me?” Shimiba taps the dry reed with her stick. No one answers. No one moves toward the gate. “Korakama?” She turns her head slowly, but it is not possible to know what she can see.
“You should have thought of the gate before you spit words at us, old woman.”
“Tell me, Korakama, what you know about rivers.”
Korakama laughs, as at a foolish child. “Rivers rise and fall. They eat land and give it back. They give homes to fishes and caymans and anacondas.”
“If that is all you know, then hear this. There are four rivers. This river here circles the earth and holds the lands together. Another river, I do not yet know its name, runs under the earth and feeds the worms. Another river is a stream of fire that lights the sun. The last river flows up into the sky and holds the heavens together. Now, open the gate.”
“Old women do not go through gates. They die and are burned and then they are clouds and go up.”
Shimiba steps forward and strikes the woven straw with her stick. Sun and insects have weakened it, so that even her weak blow makes a small hole. She steps back. “Which brave one will look through the hole?”
“No one but the non-human looks through a hole. Ask him.”
“You, Korakama, are afraid that a bad ghost is out there. But it is the one that has come to take me. Look through the hole, unless you are afraid. I, Shimiba, say it!”
Korakama points to a boy. “Go and look, Hatayo. You have slept in the hammock of the non-human and looked through the hole in his box.”
“Ree-ya! Ree-ya!” A burst of mocking laughter fills the woshana.
Hatayo is pushed forward roughly. He raises himself on tip-toe up to the hole, but before he can peer out Shimiba pokes him in the buttocks with her stick. He jumps forward and in so doing opens the gate. There is great laughter. He jumps up and runs in shame into the forest.
K cannot pursue him. The moment here in the woshana is too important.
The scrim of the dream issues a sibylline whisper. “Our earth and the stones are spoiled and corroded, as in the sea all thing are corroded by the brine. Neither is there anything left of noble substance, but only caverns and sand and sloughs of mud.”
K adjusts his eyes to the gloaming. The old man and his young consort and the others in attendance become more clearly visible.
“Tell me, Archilous, what in the end is born out of the living?”
“And what is born out of the dead?”
“You want me to say the living, but I do not know this.”
Now comes the cup-bearer. It is K himself, naked. He is brown and hirsute unlike the comely lad on the bed beside the old man. Nor is his penis sheathed. Ashamed, he tries nevertheless to deliver the cup, but he can barely move. It is as though he labors against the current of a thickly silted river.
“Come, bearer, give the cup and I will drink and you will report to the State and the Law that all has been done according to their will.”
K moves haltingly but at last hands the cup to the old man. He looks at the beautiful flesh of the youth. It is anointed and wonderfully fragrant. K retreats.
“I have drunk,” the old man says. “Now, Archilous, do not be coy. You know that the living are born out of the dead. How do you know?”
“Nay. You must say.”
“Is it not true that in all we know there is a universal opposition: hot and cold, wet and dry, airy and still, rough and smooth?”
“I cannot think of a quality that does not have an opposite.”
“And is there not also an intermediary quality that is always going from one opposite to the other and back again? And so is it not therefore inevitably true that where there is a greater and a less there is also an intermediary of increase and diminution, so that whatever waxes must also wane and that which wanes must wax?”
“Then why should I fear this numbness that now begins to creep up my leg? For out of the waning of this life will come waxing, another life, in a finer place.”
“Why in a finer place?”
“Do you think that my soul is evil, caked with injustice and violence and must therefore prowl around tombs and sepulchers like a hungry wolf? Or do you think that it is a decent intermediary tending more toward the good than the evil?”
Shimiba walks slowly, stiffly through the gate and out onto the path that leads to the river, whose rush is now barely audible above the footfall of the congregated tribe.
Korakama walks beside the old woman. “Where is the guide you said was coming for you?”
“There. But you will not see her with the eyes of your body because your flesh is rotten.”
“Will we see the boat?” The mocking tone of Korakama’s voice is subdued.
Shimiba taps her stick before her but inclines her head toward the sky. “I remember this day. It is wearing the same clothes. You also Korakama will remember your day when it comes. Not this day I am striking with my stick but your day which wears its same clothes.”
The sound of the river begins to rise now. As Shimiba and the long line of followers approach, the river forms about them a tunnel of murmuring ever more thickly woven. At the river’s edge they fan out along the bank.
“Are we waiting for the boat to come, old woman?”
“The boat has come, Korakama. I have told you that you cannot see it with the eyes of your body.” Shimiba begins to walk down a gentle embankment toward a small backwater, which turns slowly like a miniature maelstrom and churns up mud. Out beyond the backwater the Negro flows straight by, true to its name, the color of dark tea.
“Ya-yay-yao!” Many motion to Korakama to stop the old woman. He wades into the water behind her, but holds his hand up to signify that he will wait to see what happens before he does anything. Meanwhile, howler monkeys begin to scream from the opposite bank, a familiar sound, but this day the noise is piercing and unsettling. The men shake their fists at the monkeys. “Eyo cak-ca! Eyo cak-ca!”
K has come again to the scrim, unsure if he wants to sue for admission to the inner precincts of the dream or wait at a safe distance for the hemlock to complete its course. All is gray. Even the unblemished alabaster of the boy’s body now hosts in its sweet creases darkening shadows.
Archilous moves his hand above the old man’s knee. The chill of death is climbing the trunk of the noble old body.
“I am thinking a strange thought, Archilous. Remember how often I have said that all knowledge is simply recollection and therefore there must have a been a previous time in which we already knew all that we now recollect?”
“Yes, I remember it well. But what is the strange thought?”
“I am thinking that death is not of the knowledge that we recollect. What do you think?”
“I think that it is not. I cannot imagine recollecting death.”
“Then there is no knowledge of death. Why?”
“Nay, you must say.”
“It is that death is not an object of knowledge. It is nil, or it is merely a passage. It is like a shadow on a wall, but not even the shadow of an object, only a momentary occlusion of light.”
“Yes. So it must be.”
“Then I shall enter the passage. It might have been shorter, but as we know, excitement retards the action of the herb. You, my friends, have excited me to this last talk. Now come and put your hands on me and on Agapitho too, for I felt his tear on my cheek. I want your touch to be the last thing I know in this world.”
K believes that it was Korakama’s intention all along to humor Shimiba to the last moment and then snatch her back from a watery death. But the old woman makes a sudden plunge and the river sweeps her up.
The old head bobs in the current. K cannot tell whether or not the old woman is paddling with arms and legs or simply sliding downstream. A curious kingfisher swoops over the head, hovers a moment and flies on. The river begins to bend, carrying the head away toward the far bank. And now a pink dolphin crests and disappears not far from the head. The head disappears.
“Yal-yalao! The dolphin carries her away! Shimiba is on the dolphin’s back! The dolphin carries her away!”
A long time the people stay by the bank of the river chanting. And then as darkness comes on swiftly, they drift back to the woshana. K leaves them and circles around the woshana. “Hatayo! Come, Hatayo! The old woman is gone. Come, Hatayo!”
Darkness falls. In the distance K hears the low murmur of human voices. They have gathered around the manioc boat to eat.
There is little underbrush under the canopy of the trees of the Amazon. It is said it was cleared away by Rayomaka, goddess of the jaguar, so that her daughters could find plenty to eat. K walks rapidly back to the woshana. There he is greatly relieved to find Hatayoa, who has circled back and now lies in his hammock. But he will not speak to K.
Eugene Garber's fourth collection, "Vienna 00" was reviewed in Offcourse #26, his previous book, "Beasts in their Wisdom" in Offcourse#19 . His stories have appeared in Offcourse#25, Offcourse#17, Offcourse#13 and Offcourse#10. Eugene Garber has published two previous collections of fiction: "Metaphysical Tales", winner of the AWP Award for Short Fiction in 1981, and "The Historian", winner of the William Goyen Award in 1992. His fiction has been anthologized in The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction, Best American Short Stories, and The Paris Review Anthology, among other compilations.
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