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Cian, Lost in Romani

Chapter One

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

dirty clothes.


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

intertwining wavelets.



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.

Click here for Chapter Two

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