— In all likelihood, you have not heard of their tribe.
I am speaking to my intern, not my intern, but a boy so scrawny and
terrified-looking that he seems to need to belong to someone, anyone. I
am speaking to him instead of letting him sort journal articles in
silence because we will, after all, be spending the semester together
and because he does not seem to know what to make of a middle-aged
lesbian ethnobotanist. He is not wholly unique in this sense.
— They do not wear wooden saucers in their ears like the
Botocudo; they do not make killing canoes like the Shrimp-Eaters, the
Potiguara. They do not cannibalize bishops or explorers or
ethnolinguists like their cousins the Caetés; they do not
worship the piranha or the tapir or any of the three hundred forty-two
varieties of tree frog.
The day I met Carmen, I was not thinking of tree frogs. I was not
thinking of love or falling in love or the thousand fragile
impossibilities of love. Until she drifted into the arboretum and began
applying her lipstick beside a Cattleya orchid, I was concerned only
with spore clusters and mesophyll and pollen. There was sufficiency in
the underside of a fern.
— They call themselves the Kogi, and there are only several
hundred or thousand remaining in their forest of leafmold and creeping
vines. There is little to distinguish them from their downriver
neighbors – no distinct language, no special deities. Only
their shamans are unusual; only the sun children set them apart.
I am reciting facts to put my intern at ease. Facts are solid. Facts do
not fall out from under a person like a dissolving staircase. At the
same time, I am also thinking about how Carmen never cared about
shamans, how in certain ways she was her own shaman, casting curses and
granting wishes with a hairflip, hipsway, walkaway sort of charm.
— The sun children. Rare photographs reveal them to be pale,
small, birdboned. They may face in the direction of the cameras, but
their eyes stare through the photographers. Beyond them.
Carmen did not find them beautiful, Carmen with her perfect lips and
teeth, her glossy hair free of bones and beads and tangled pinion
feathers. Her perfect body, her perfect sorority sisters, her perfect
My intern is looking at me strangely. Is this pity or fear or just a
desire for me to keep talking?
— The sun children are chosen from birth, shamans in
training, and are raised in a cave three miles upstream from their
tribe. They remain in the cave until they are adults, fed on manioc and
capsicum and stories. They are taught the ancient secrets of their
tribe – divination, raising the dead, communing with
benevolent spirits – and they never once set foot in the
My intern clears his throat and I realize I am crumbling a pinecone
into scales in my hand. I set it down carefully and keep talking as if
nothing has happened.
— Then, when they are ten or twelve or fourteen, whatever the
fickle age of their bodies’ spontaneous combustions, they are
brought into the real world. Led forth from the cave, allowed to step
squinting into the lavish dappled twilights of the jungle. Sometimes I
try to imagine that first moment they see not sky or water or mountains
but rather vastness reflected in miniature, the entire universe in the
venation of a leaf. I imagine they think they have seen God.
And did Carmen understand how this would feel? Did she understand
allegory, pantheism, the hundred humble ways I would worship her
treetops and plateaus?
— For the rest of their lives, the sun children are dazed.
Half-stunned, perpetually astonished, all the slow stalactiform stories
brought to life before their eyes. Their people believe them to be in
the perfect state to commune with the gods, to intercede on behalf of
the Kogi. They belong to no world, neither tribe nor cave; their
existence is bewilderment, anomaly.
The day Carmen walked into my office, definitively belonging to no one
but herself, I was not thinking of gods or intercessions. Not miracles,
not meteors, not the buckling of tectonic plates or the
breathshattering paralysis of a car crash. I was thinking of nothing a
self-respecting person cannot recover from.
— What do you think it feels like? asks my intern, the
intern, startling me. When they leave the cave? When they see something
for the first time?
I consider how to reply. What is it like, indeed?
— It is dazzling, I tell him. It is beauty. It is ruin.
Gabrielle Hovendon has stories in or coming from Necessary Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, apt
and others. She's an MFA candidate at Bowling Green.
Detail of art on main page courtesy
W i g l e a f