Cian, Lost in Romani
By Charley Brindley
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The afternoon side of the ship was pleasant and sunny. A fresh
mid-Atlantic breeze brushed by the old freighter and cooled the decking
where the children had their classroom. Three of the kids sat in little
chairs, lined up before their four-footed teacher. Bec-Kama-Ra, the fourth
child, sat cross-legged on the deck at the end of the line with her doll
held close. Campoo the monkey crouched obediently next to her.
"Good afternoon, kids," I said as I walked by on my way to the bridge.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Saxon," Billy and Magnalana said together.
"Hi, Uncle Saxon," Rachel said.
The animals ignored me and Bec-Kama-Ra remained silent, only staring at me
with those dark, vacant eyes. I could never tell if she still feared me or
simply resented my presence. I stopped to watch for a moment to see how
she interacted with the others.
The teacher spoke, "Now, children…" Hero cocked his ears at the unusually
deep voice coming from behind Billy's cupped hand. "Today we will study
tapioca pudding," Billy said, speaking for Hero the teacher. Rachel and
Magnalana giggled and the little teacher-dog jerked his head toward them,
flicking his Scottish Terrier whiskers. Hero's mustache and head were the
only Terrier traits he inherited. The rest of his body was that of a
miniature German Shepard with very short legs. The two girls fell silent,
the smiles still on their faces.
Bec-Kama-Ra did not giggle, or even smile. She stared first at the brown
and black dog and then up at the other three children. Campoo, the monkey,
copied her movements and blank expression.
"To eat tapioca pudding, you must first have a spoon, then you…"
"Wait a while," Magnalana said, getting to her feet. "This isn't fair." A
dash of her grandmother's Irish blood gave Magnalana eighteen inches of
flaming red hair and thousands of freckles. A black velvet bow restrained
her curls at the back of her neck.
"What?" asked Rachel. Blonde with blue-gray eyes, Rachel was six years
old, bright and precocious. The other children, and Hero too, were about
the same age as Rachel. The monkey was much older.
"Carmen has to sit on the floor while we have chairs."
The children did not know Bec-Kama-Ra's real name. She had not spoken a
word to anyone since I took her, biting and scratching like a frightened
little animal, from the Tecora three days before. She stayed with the
children only because they came to get her to participate in their games.
Magnalana made up the name "Carmen" so they could call her something. The
girl understood none of what the other children were doing or what they said.
Magnalana took the hem of her dress in each hand and curtsied to
Bec-Kama-Ra. "Would Princess Carmen please take my seat?" Magnalana said
and then swept both hands toward her chair.
Bec-Kama-Ra looked at Magnalana for a moment, then she got to her feet and
went to the nearby bulkhead. She leaned back against the gray and chipped
steel plating and looked down at her bare feet. She wore Rachel's
raspberry pink skirt and candy-stripped blouse with the puffy sleeves. She
was only slightly smaller than Rachel.
"Alright then," Magnalana said, "you can be the principal."
"Can I be the teacher now?" Rachel asked as she got up from her chair.
"No," Magnalana said, "Hero is the teacher for five more minutes, then you
can be the teacher. Right now you are ugly old nurse Trujillo. You have
to give everybody shots."
"Oh BOY!" Rachel said, "I love to give shots." She pulled a huge
imaginary syringe from her nurse's bag. "Roll up your sleeve, Mr. Billy.
You are going to get it."
"Uh-huh," Billy said and jumped to his feet. "Not me." He ran around the
row of chairs. "I ain't taking no shot."
I went on about my duties as the crippled ship rose on an ocean swell and
tilted down the back side of the long wave. The row of children's chairs,
along with a nearby deckchair, slid forward in slow motion. The kids
seemed not to notice as they moved their activities along with the
traveling chairs and their little sea-legs kept them on the straight and
Rachel chased Billy and Magnalana ran the other way to head him off.
"Oh yes you are," the two girls cried as they ran after the boy.
They caught him and wrestled him to the deck, but he still struggled to
get away, laughing as the two giggling girls tickled him.
"Come on, Carmen!" Rachel shouted, "help us give Billy-boy a shot."
The ship rolled and the kids and chairs slid toward Bec-Kama-Ra. She
still stood against the wall, her hand over her mouth. Then she put her
doll down on the deck and took a step toward the other children as they
tumbled and laughed. But before she got to them, she looked up and her
eyes widened. Suddenly she grabbed Campoo and her doll, and ran as fast as
she could, down the deck, turned the first corner she came to and was gone.
The other three children were mystified by the girl's actions until a
shadow of a man fell over their play school and they turned to see Victor
Brutus Booth standing over them, swaying with the movement of the ship.
"Well kiddies, aren't we having a lot of fun today." Bald, with a ring of
straggly brown hair hanging over blue-veined ears, his broken and
discolored teeth turned his grin into a curled sliver of beer bottle glass.
Corpulent and splotchy, he wore a black suit with a black vest. Four
tarnished buttons running down the front of the garment strained to pop off
and fly away.
"Yes, Captain Booth," the children answered in gloomy unison as they got
up and dusted themselves off. "We WERE having fun," Magnalana mumbled as
they picked up their chairs and marched in a line toward the mess cabin to
put the chairs away. Hero growled at the man and then followed along
behind them. Lessons were finished for the day, the little make-believe
school closed by the dark shadow of a smirking Captain Booth. Now that the
area was quiet, he settled himself into the deckchair to nap until dinnertime.
Cian sat on the stern side of the hatch cover amidships, practicing chords
on Doki's old guitar while the second load of laundry sloshed around in an
ancient washing machine. It was one of those washers with the wringer
mounted on the side and a hand-crank to squeeze the water out of the wet
clothes before they were hung up to dry. It stood on four legs with an
electric motor Doki had attached below the tub. A belt and crank affair
rotated the inside agitator back and forth.
The first load of laundry was already hung up in the rigging to
dry, having been hoisted there by Cian and my sister Kaitlin. The
combination of sailors' dungarees, faded blue shirts, ladies' colorful
dresses and children's underclothes presented a strange set of signal flags
flying from the Borboleta's lines. Above the drying clothes flew the red
and green Portuguese pennant. Kaitlin had left Cian a few minutes earlier
to make the rounds of the cabins and crew's quarters to gather up more
Bec-Kama-Ra came racing around the corner, fell to the deck and
scooted behind Cian's long brown and tan skirt. She cowered there with her
doll and pet monkey.
"Carmen," Cian said as she put the guitar aside. "What wrong?" Since the
child had not said a word to anyone and in no way attempted to communicate
during the three days she had been onboard the Borboleta, Cian called her
Carmen just as the children did.
She lifted the girl to her lap and held her close. "Not worry little
critten, you all safe by me."
The girl snuggled to Cian's breast and let go of the monkey. He climbed
to Cian's shoulder and gripped her hair as his eyes darted around the area
and up at the clothes flapping in the breeze. After a moment he settled
down and looked at the girl.
Cian brushed the hair from Bec-Kama-Ra's cheek and then, with a finger
under the girl's chin, gently turned her face up. Her eyes were dark like
Cian's. Her skin was a soft bronze, a shade darker than Cian's tan and her
long hair just as black.
"What hide behind that pretty brown eyes, I like to know," Cian cooed to
the child and smiled.
The girl did not smile, but only looked into Cian's eyes and then watched
her lips as she spoke.
"Guess you want same about me, know you cannot understand any my word."
I turned the wheel over to Choy and left the bridge, filling my pipe as I
stepped outside and walked around to the lee side of the wheelhouse. A
narrow catwalk led to a platform we called the lookout. The first mate
used it to oversee the loading of cargo into the hold when we were in port
and it gave a good view of the ship all the way to the stern. I pulled the
flame of a match into the bowl of my pipe and leaned on the railing,
looking down on the deck below where Cian and Carmen sat on the edge of the
hatch cover beside Doki's guitar. Cian had spread out a handful of colored
stones and the girl was separating them into blues, reds and greens.
The first time I saw Cian was three weeks before, at the Manaus quay, a
wharf of timber and sand on the upper Amazon strand. She was bare above
the waist except for her amulet. A length of mottled damask served as a
skirt. She showed a mild contempt for modesty as she sat with one knee
raised, her foot on the weathered planks and dangled the other leg in the
mud-clouded water---that one being chiseled from a mahogany stump. The
good leg was sculpted from her mother's family tree. Her mother, I think,
must have been very beautiful, but not so wise in her daughter's upbringing.
She amused herself by tossing live rats to the piranhas. The piranhas
amused themselves by devouring the rats. The rats, apparently, were not
amused, perhaps because they had never learned to swim so well.
Her amulet was an IBM modem. No, it was not the primitive, sluggish type,
but a modern one, designed for rapid communications. It was about the
width of a pack of Lucky Strikes. Someone had punched a hole in one corner
and there it swung by braided leather, next to her breast. The corners of
the device were padded with wee fleecy triangles to protect the softest
part of her body. Later I examined it more closely and found it to be from
a laptop computer. I wondered briefly what happened to the owner of the
lap, but soon lost my train of thought.
"Do you know the way to Alichapon-tupec?" I asked in Portuguese.
"Of course," she replied in Yanomami.
I did not understand her and made signs as to my ignorance.
She smiled and took my hand. I glanced at the piranhas who each had one
eye above the water.
Pulling herself up, she nodded toward one of her sacks as she picked up
the other, along with her medicine bag. "You carry the rats."
This I understood---some things need no translation. I picked up the rats
and followed her along the dock, matching my step to hers. It was then I
noticed the rows of tiny teeth marks around the water-end of her wooden
leg, made by rats or piranhas I could not say.
Presently we came to a small dugout canoe. She gestured toward it. I
told her I had two companions, three if one should count the dog. By
clever signs and a sly smile, Cian asked a question.
"Female," I replied, "both."
She chose a larger canoe, I don't think it belonged to her.
I had in my possession a very colorful map which I purchased from a
gentleman in Rio de Janeiro five days before, when Kaitlin, Rachel and I
boarded the freighter Ipanema Cinco for our trip to Macapa at the mouth of
the Amazon River. The man informed me he was a high government official
and I had no reason to disbelieve him, but his map showed Manaus to be on
the banks of the Madeira River, not at the confluence of the Rio Negro and
the Amazon as it actually is. And farther, Alichapon-tupec was marked
twenty-five kilometers downstream of Manaus. If that were the case, we
should have passed that village on the day previous, which we did not, and
hence my question to the young lady on the dock. I paid the man
thirty-nine Reals for his multi-colored, beautifully inaccurate map as we
stood in front of the Cathedral São Antonio, which was, as the travel
brochure said, "...a elderly church squished amidst skyscrapes," not to
mention lying in the very shadow of a giant Christ The Redeemer standing
atop Corcovado Mountain.
The four of us; Kaitlin, her little daughter Rachel, Cian serving as our
guide, and I, left the dock at Manaus and paddled upriver.
Kaitlin, my sister, knew of a red-leaved piassava with powerful medicinal
properties, that grew only in the vicinity of Alichapon-tupec. We would go
there, try to obtain samples of the plant and perhaps gain some knowledge
of its use from the local natives.
We traveled up the river without stop until sunset, then made camp
and cooked five rats on sharpened sticks. My sister and niece said they
were not so hungry after all, still satisfied from our hearty breakfast---a
meal I could not remember having. They immediately went to sleep.
Cian and I made attempts at conversation, using words and gestures, along
with pictures drawn in the dirt. After several hours, all we learned was
that she was a woman alone in the Amazon and I was an outsider looking for
something. When I tried to explain what I was searching for, I could not.
My sister, of course, was looking for an exotic plant. Cian only smiled
and made motions that to me were as musical and sensual as the softest
sonata. Do I care, I asked myself, what is really being said? We both fed
the fire and continued to chip away at the verbal barrier between us until
we fell asleep.
The next morning Cian made bread, from what I do not know. She cooked it
on a flat rock by the fire, adding crushed petalage from her medicine bag.
My sister jotted down the identification and description of the flower
leaves and asked for more bread. I was pleased to see she had regained her
"Saxon," Kaitlin said.
I looked over at her.
"Can you sketch these petals and the nookum bread Cian has made for us?
We have to try to find the plants and collect specimens." She handed me
the dried petal Cian had given her. "Be careful, I'm afraid it's going to
"I'll try," I said and carefully took the petal from her hand. I laid it
on my breakfast rock and took up the sketch book.
All that day we paddled upstream. The river narrowed, then narrowed again.
We came to a rocky waterfall and portaged around it, then drifted on a
long deep lake. I took the sketchbook from my backpack and watched Cian as
she watched the water. It appeared to me that she was lost in thought for
some time. What she saw in the water, or in her memories, told her we
should make a turn to the Northeast. She indicated as much to me, and I,
being in the stern of the vessel, put down my book and pencil to adjust our
My sister compiled notes on ethnobotany while Rachel trailed a finger on
the smooth surface of the water and I kept watch on the shadowing fin wakes.
Cian left us that night after we made camp at the top of the lake, the dog
went with her. For some reason I found this disconcerting. Not that I
missed the dog so much, but I felt at loose ends. I busied myself by
building a rather large accumulation of firewood.
Before dawn, Cian and the dog returned with fresh meat. The dog wore a
collar of braided leather I had not seen before. Cian worked by the
firelight, skinning and gutting. The dog and I watched her. "Astonishing
woman," I whispered to him. He did not make reply but only slitted his
eyes at me. After a moment he returned his gaze toward Cian and with a
deep sigh, laid his chin upon his outstretched front paws.
Cian was at once young and old. I never knew her age, except that I am
sure she was above the age of innocence. She could have been twenty-five
or thirty-five, but I doubt she ever considered calendarical reckoning.
She was young and svelte in body but mature beyond her years in wisdom and
cunning. The Amazon pulsed through her veins and flickered in her eyes;
teeming with life but cool and calculating. Sex and death were events that
happened, not emotional issues. No, we did not speak of these things; I
saw it by the way she used her knife, wits and body. Perhaps she was no
more than a savage at heart, but it mattered not at all to me.
The next morning I woke to laughter and arose to find Cian and Rachel
playing a game with a score or so of smooth stones consisting of many
colors. One or the other would shake a quantity of the stones in her hand,
toss them upon the place they had cleared in the dirt, and then, at some
sign from the other player, each would begin to grab as many of a
particular color of stone as possible. At the end of the round, the two
would open their hands, look at the stones each had captured, and in a
frenzy, begin plucking stones of a certain size from each other's hands.
This last phase was always accompanied by a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
I watched this game for some time and for the life of me could not
determine the formula of play, which appeared to be quite fluid from one
round to the next. But such is the nature of females of every culture; to
maintain a certain fluidity in the rules of engagement and thereby keep the
males forever tipped off balance.
I did, however, notice that my niece now had her wavy blonde hair tied in
the back, being held in place by a delicate length of curling tendril and
two lavender orchids. Cian's long brunette hair was done up, I suspect by
Rachel, in two ponytails, one on either side of her head, just over her
ears. The left one a bit higher than the right and each secured by what I
believe are called barrettes, one of red plastic and the other green.
I found a circle of Cian's bread ready for me on a stone near the fire,
along with a cup of honeyed tea. As I began my breakfast I suddenly
realized that the two were not only laughing hysterically from time to
time, but between rounds of their game they were chattering back and forth
in what I could only assume to be the Yanomami language! I looked over at
Kaitlin to find her looking at me, a smile on her lips. I raised an
eyebrow and she shrugged her shoulders as she went back to studying a
yellow leaf under her magnifying glass.
In the forenoon we left the lake by entering a green tributary which later
turned into a brown one. The next day we paddled on until we came to a
place where the stream stagnated and ceased to flow. It lay perfectly
still as our bow cut across its thin skin. The water tolerated this
affliction for many hours, and then, an almost imperceptible change began
to take place; the stream colored to emerald, then blood-red and began to
writhe with life as if awaking. Soon it began to move forward, but in the
opposite direction of its original course. Apparently we had crossed some
sort of divide, continental or otherwise, I do not know. My expensive map
was of no use to me now, our journey having long since traveled beyond its
chewed edge. I rolled it up and shoved it back into the rat sack where
Cian had placed it on our first day.
Through a break in the forest canopy I could see snowcapped mountains in
the Western distance. I believed these to be the Northern range of the
Andes. For some reason all things came into sharp focus at that moment;
the mountains, the Amazon, the stream, the bow of the canoe...everything
became perfectly clear to me.
We did not want for food or drink, our guide provided all, but Cian seemed
to be mystified by our rituals of breakfast, lunch and dinner. She ate
when she was hungry and rested when weary. As far as I know, she never
slept through the entire night, but rose frequently to take the pulse of
the jungle. Sometimes when she returned in the dark, she touched my arm to
show me what she had found. She wanted me to sample and taste all that was
hers, and I acceded to her desires with elastic delight.
Cian collected leaves and delivered them to Kaitlin, explaining as best
she could, their intended medicinal purposes. The journal pages filled
with joyous notes, as the leaves were carefully pressed therein to dry.
At night when she was gone, I lay silent, listening; a heavy, scaled body
slid over dry leaves and up tender bark. Upon the air, a faint feline
scent drifted by in the dark. Was Cian thus; preferring moving prey to a
motionless one? Beneath my bedroll, the ashes of unchronicled nations
cradled my sleepless body and the musky odor of ancient decay rose to
envelop me. Though awake, I dreamt the Amazon herself seduced me within
her primordial embrace. I dared not move, but only breathed and beat in
measured cadence, waiting still for her.
By the fourth day I had discarded my shirt and cut my khakis into shorts.
Cian's IBM modem hung around my neck, my old Zippo lighter was now her
amulet. Each morning she held it to her lips and smiled. She never tired
of flipping it open to reassure herself that the flame still lived within
the thing's metallic heart. I frequently checked my supply of flint and
lighter fluid; her happiness had become essential to my existence.
Cian's presence in my life changed me utterly, my intrusion into her world
altered her not at all, and for this I will be eternally grateful.
At night we left camp together. I, practicing my stealth and cunning, she
guiding my hand and reacquainting herself with human bonding. Together we
captured, killed, skinned and gutted. We ate when we were hungry, slept
when we were tired. At times our amulets swung together upon a cypress
limb. Perhaps I too was a savage at heart. I do not think it mattered to
her. If it did, she never spoke of it.
The stream had grown to a wide river and when next we embarked upon the
water, I rode in the bow of our vessel and she took the stern. Still I
looked to her for direction, but learned to sense our course by feeling her
gentle corrections. I tried to read the water as she did, but saw only
Six days after I met Cian on the dock at Manaus, we arrived at
Alichapon-tupec. It was not Alichapon-tupec at all, but Cian's village.
It was deserted, it had been for many years. There were no graves, only
rotting hammocks swinging between mahogany stumps.
Cian set the last rat free and cut her mother's hammock from the trees.
After we buried her mother's bones, I took her in my arms and let her cry
upon my aching heart.
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