On the banks of the mighty Orinoco river stands a solitary figure. Leaning against a gnarled old tree, he gazes absently across the river’s vast expanse. The vista was unchanging, but something drew this remote figure to the same spot each day, as regular as the coming sunset. Alone, he would stay there until compelled to return to his village.
He sighed deeply watching the river’s endless journey downstream to a destination he couldn’t envision. Bending down, he scooped up a handful of water and savoured the sweet taste as it refreshed his parched mouth. With the setting sun illuminating the forest with a fiery-red glow he returned on the short walk back to the settlement. Negotiating a well-worn path from years of regular footfall he took in his surroundings.
The forest was green and lush with animal calls echoing from within, and from high above the canopy. A colourful bird darted from one tree to another making him jump in surprise, and Jabuti laughed at his reaction. His friends joked that even a butterfly could scare him such was the nature of his daydreaming. With his musings occupying his mind, he soon found himself back home. Several dogs came bounding up to greet him rushing around his legs and sniffing him like faithful sentries. Kneeling, he wrestled with them as they playfully gnawed his hands. The sound of children’s laughter filled his ears as they played together, and he smiled at them. Continuing into the village, he nodded his greetings to the other inhabitants of his tribe, the Piaroa Indians.
He made his way towards the communal hut that the single men shared and sat upon some straw matting in a corner. At that moment his two closest friends entered.
Wanadi was a happy person with a big wide grin lighting up his features. He had a playful glint in his eyes and was always teasing his friends. With the strength of two men and matchless bravery, he was a courageous warrior. Mapi was the complete opposite though. What he lacked in strength and size he more than made up for in loyalty and a quick wit. And it annoyed Wanadi no end that he always got the better of him in any competition of words.
‘Come Jabuti,’ Wanadi said. ‘Let us complete our chores before the sun disappears.’
Jabuti obliged and followed his friends outside to repair the roof of one of the community dwellings which became damaged during a particularly violent downpour. They used dried palm thatching to fix the hole, a skill they had learnt from a very early age. As they worked, they hummed and sung traditional folk songs, and Jabuti’s mind was soon relieved from his troubles as he sang along with them.
‘I’m pleased to see you happy,’ Mapi remarked.
Jabuti looked over at his friend as he worked and smiled.
‘When will you talk with the shaman?’
‘About what?’ Wanadi joined in. ‘Your restlessness.’
‘It’s who I am,’ he shrugged.
‘You’re always lost in your thoughts.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘Nothing. But we know you’re lonely.’
Embarrassed, Jabuti looked away.
‘You have us as friends,’ Mapi said. ‘But there’s something that troubles your mind. Maybe the shaman can help?’
‘I’d feel foolish.’
‘Why? He’s like a father to you.’
‘Can we talk about this tomorrow?’
His friends both nodded and began singing again. In no time they had fixed the roof, and they went to eat with no more discussion of the matter.
Jabuti awoke the next morning recalling his friends’ sage advice. He arose and walked to the river to wash. Wanadi was already there drying off in the early morning sunshine, and he greeted him upon his arrival.
‘Where is Mapi?’
‘Oh, you know him - always hungry.’
Jabuti smiled. ‘I have listened to your words, and I will speak with the shaman today,’ he said.
‘That pleases me; he is a wise man.’
‘And you don’t think any less of me?’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Perhaps I am weak?’
‘Only a weak man would ignore what is troubling him,’ Wanadi said. ‘Come, let us find Mapi before he eats all the food.’
They returned to find him still eating.
Upon seeing this, Wanadi remarked to Jabuti, ‘If only he did as much work as he ate.’
‘What did you say?’ Mapi said with his mouth full.
‘Hello, Jabuti,’ came a voice from behind him.
‘Oh… hello Maru,’ he stammered.
Wanadi and Mapi sniggered.
‘Hello boys,’ she said to them.
‘We’ll leave you two alone,’ Wanadi said. ‘Come on Mapi you’ve had enough to eat already.’
‘Hey!’ he protested.
‘How are you?’ Maru asked.
‘I am well.’
‘What are you doing today?’
‘You must be doing something.’
‘Erm… not really.’
‘You’re not very good at this are you?’
‘Oh… I… well…’
‘I’ll make it easy for you,’ she said in exasperation. ‘Would you like to go for a walk?’
‘Oh, I was going to talk with the shaman today.’
Maru simply stood there glaring at him with her hands on her hips.
‘Erm… yes. I’d love to.’
She rolled her eyes and shook her head.
‘I don’t know how you get up in the morning,’ she mumbled.
‘I don’t sleep that well anyway,’ he said. ‘Oh… you were joking.’
‘I could scream,’ she laughed. ‘Shut up and take my hand.’
Even Jabuti knew when to stop talking, and he took her hand as they walked.
After some time, she said, ‘Why don’t you ever talk to me?’
‘If that’s what you call it - “Oh, erm, hello Maru,” she said mimicking him.
He laughed. ‘But you just told me to shut up.’
‘Ah, I see what you mean.’ He was silent for a while before answering. ‘You make me nervous.’
‘Oh, my poor little thing,’ she pouted.
Despite himself, he couldn’t help but laugh again.
‘That’s better,’ she said. ‘So, what is this talk of the shaman?’
‘Oh, it’s nothing.’
She looked at him impatiently.
‘I don’t know how to explain.’
He looked at her for a while wondering what her reaction would be. ‘If I tell you will you promise not to make fun of me?’
‘I might tease you at times, Jabuti, but I’m not without feeling.’
He took a deep breath and said, ‘I… I feel lonely and just different to everyone else.’
‘We’re all different.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Do I? Tell me,’ she said.
By now they had walked quite a way, and they sat down upon a large mossy log. Jabuti sat with his hands clasped in front of him not sure of how to begin.
‘I wish I were a simple man.’
‘You mean like Wanadi?’
Jabuti laughed. ‘Hah! No, I mean happier with what I have.’
‘What more do you want?’
‘I don’t know,’ he shrugged.
‘Hmm,’ she mused. ‘This is a spiritual matter for the shaman.’
‘And that is why I must talk with him.’
‘Well, it is import—’
She leant forward and kissed him.
‘There’s always tomorrow,’ he smiled.
They returned to the village hand in hand in comfortable silence. Jabuti thought back to the times when as children they all used to play together. Back then Maru seemed a nuisance and just a girl. Even though he pretended to be irritated by her and the other girls, there was something about her. Unable to show his emotions he teased her relentlessly until she ran away in tears. As he watched her leave, he felt like his heart might break.
But then they grew up, and she spent more time with her friends and learning the skills of the older women, whilst Jabuti learned the art of becoming a hunter and discovering all about forest craft. With the loss of the innocence of their youth, they were incapable of connecting. Even so, Jabuti felt a growing attraction to her that almost overwhelmed him.
But here they were holding hands, and he felt dizzy and excited at the same time. Trying not to show how he felt he acted nonchalantly. Suddenly Maru stopped and turned to him with hands placed firmly on her hips once more.
‘You can stop that act right now,’ she said. ‘We’re not children anymore.’
‘I know that I’m the best thing to happen to you. So, Jabuti, you either admit that now, or I’ll walk away.’
‘Stop!’ he pleaded. ‘Stop… please.’ He took her by the arm and looked deep into her hazel eyes. ‘You’re right. I feel nervous when I’m around you. I’m not sure why you’re interested in me, you’re so… beautiful.’
‘I am beautiful,’ she smiled. ‘I don’t know why I’m attracted to you either, but I am. So, don’t mess this up, understand?’
‘I’m not going to say anything.’
‘Now you get it.’
She screamed as he chased her through the forest.
Jabuti spent the rest of the day with a massive grin on his face. Not even the constant teasing from his friends could quash his ebullient mood.
‘No need to see the shaman then, eh?’ Wanadi said.
‘I had a good time with Maru,’ Jabuti smiled. ‘But I still feel as if I must talk with him.’
‘It’s your choice,’ Mapi said.
‘Thank you. I don’t want to let my fears mess things up with Maru.’
‘She is a fierce woman.’
‘Hah! Yes, she is.’
‘Shall we go fishing later?’
‘Yes, Mapi, that would be good.’
‘Or do you have to ask Maru’s permission first?’
Wanadi laughed at his comment. ‘Good one,’ he said.
Jabuti smiled at their gentle teasing.
Later that day they walked to the river’s edge where they prepared to launch their bongo, which was the name given to a dug-out canoe. It was a steady craft from which to fish, and they had always enjoyed these expeditions ever since they were children. It was a good way for them to provide for the community and have fun together.
All they needed for their afternoon was patience and a hand-thrown net weaved from the youngest leaves of the moriche palm. They paddled a little upstream and threw a rock bound with a rope attached to the canoe into the water. There they sat enjoying the gentle lapping of the water as it drifted past.
In no time at all Mapi was snoring loudly as he lay in the canoe's bottom. Jabuti and Wanadi marvelled at his ability to sleep anywhere at any time of the day.
‘He never changes,’ Wanadi said.
Jabuti smiled at his sleeping friend.
They took turns throwing the net with little success and then sat down as Mapi continued to sleep.
‘How is Maru?’ Wanadi asked.
‘Is that it?’
‘What do you want me to say?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. Something like Maru is the only girl for me?’ he laughed.
Jabuti smiled. ‘That’s what she said.’
‘We all know it, Jabuti.’
‘It scares me.’
‘My feelings for her.’
‘Oh, you are a funny one.’
Jabuti bristled a little at his comment.
‘Do you love her?’
‘I think so.’
‘You think so?’ Wanadi said. ‘I don’t know much about women, but I would advise against saying that to her!’
‘It’s not that easy for me.’
‘Is it for anyone? You are a complicated one.’
‘And I hate it!’
‘Do not spoil this gift. Maru is a good woman.’
‘Your words hold truth. But what if it doesn’t last?’
‘Is this about your mother?’
‘That was different. She died giving birth to you.’
‘I know, but I have this emptiness inside me.’
‘Be tranquil, my friend. You cannot control love.’
Jabuti nodded at his words.
‘Have you caught any fish yet?’ came Mapi’s voice suddenly.
‘No, we were waiting for you,’ Wanadi quipped.
‘Give it here,’ he said taking the net from under Wanadi’s feet. ‘Wanadi is right, you cannot control love,’ he winked.
Jabuti and Wanadi shared a surprised look.