and Designation among the Asadi
Death and Designation among the Asadi
PRELIMINARIES: REVERIE AND DEPARTURE
From the private journals of Egan Chaney: There are no more pygmies. Intellectual pygmies perhaps, but no more of those small, alert, swaybacked black people, of necessarily amenable disposition, who lived in the dead-and-gone Ituri rain forests; a people, by the way, whom I do not wish to sentimentalize (though perhaps I may). Pygmies no longer exist; they have been dead or dying for decades.
But on the evening before the evening when Benedict dropped me into the singing fronds of the Synesthesia Wild* under three bitter moons, they lived again for me. I spent that last evening in base camp rereading Turnbull's The Forest People. Dreaming, I lived again with the people of the Ituri. I underwent nkumbi, the ordeal of circumcision. I dashed beneath the belly of an elephant and jabbed that monstrous creature's flesh with my spear. Finally, I took part in the festival of the molimo with the ancient and clever BaMbuti.
All in all, I suppose, my reading was a sentimental exercise. Turnbull's book had been the first and most vivid ethnography I had encountered in my undergraduate career; and even on that last night in base camp, on the hostile world of BoskVeld, a planet circling the star Denebola, his book sang in my head like the forbidden lyrics of the pygmies' molimo, like the poignant melodies of BoskVeld's moons.
A sentimental exercise.
What good my reading would do me among the inhabitants of the Synesthesia Wild I had no idea. Probably none. But I was going out there; and on the evening before my departure, the day before my submersion, I lost myself in the forests of another time, knowing that for the next several months I would be the waking and wakeful prisoner of the hominoids who were my subjects. We have killed off most of the "primitive" peoples of Earth, but on paradoxical BoskVeld I still had a job.
And when Benedict turned the copter under those three antique-gold moons and flew it back to base camp like a crepitating dragonfly, I knew I had to pursue that job. But the jungle was bleak, and strange, and nightmarishly real; and all I could think was There are no more pygmies, there are no more pygmies, there are no
* This was Chaney's private and idiosyncratic term for the rain forest the rest of us called either the Calyptran Wilderness or the Wild. T. B.
METHODS: A DIALOGUE
From the professional notebooks of Egan Chaney: I was not the first Earthling to go among the Asadi, but I was the first to live with them for an extended period. The first of us to encounter the Asadi was Oliver Oliphant Frasier, the man who gave these hominoids their name--perhaps on analogy with the word Ashanti, the name of an African people who still exist, but more likely from the old Arabic word meaning lion, asad.
Oliver Oliphant Fraser had reported that the Asadi of Boskveld had no speech as we understood the concept, but that at one time they had possessed a "written language." He used both these words loosely, I'm sure, and the anomaly of writing without speech was one that I hoped to throw some light on. In addition, Frasier had said that an intrepid ethographer might hope to gain acceptance among the Asadi by a singularly unorthodox stratagem. I will describe this stratagem by setting down here a conversation I had with my pilot and research assistant, Thomas Benedict. In actual fact, this conversation never took place--but my resorting to dialogue may be helpful at this point. Benedict, no doubt, will forgive me.
--End of simulated dialogue on initial methods.
I suppose that I've made Benedict out to be a much more inquisitive fellow than he really is. All those well-informed questions! In truth, Ben is amazingly voluble about his background and his past without being especially informative. In that, he is a great deal like me, I'm afraid ... But when you read the notes for this ethnography, Ben, remember that I let you get in one or two unanswered hits at me. Can the mentor-pupil relationship go deeper than that? Can friendship? As a man whose life's work involves accepting a multitude of perspectives, I believe I've played you fair, Ben.
Forgive me my trespass.
CONTACT AND ASSIMILATION
From the private journals of Egan Chaney: Thinking There are no more pygmies, there are no more pygmies, there are no ... I lay down beneath a tree resembling an outsized rubber plant and I slept. I slept without dreaming, or else I had a grotesque nightmare that, upon waking, I suppressed. A wrist alarm woke me.
The light from Denebola had begun to copper-coat the edges of the leaves in the Synesthesia Wild. Still, dawn had not quite come. The world was silent. I refused to let the Wild distort my senses. I did not wish to cut myself on the crimsons, the yellows, the orchid blues. Nor did I have any desire to taste the first slight treacherous breeze, nor to hear the dawn detonate behind my retinas.
Therefore, I shook myself awake and began walking. Beyond the brutal fact of direction, I paid no attention to my surroundings. The clearing where the Asadi would soon congregate compelled me toward it. That fateful place drew me on. Everything else slipped out of my consciousness: blazing sky, moist earth, singing fronds. Would the Asadi accept me among them as they negatively accepted their outcasts? Upon this hope I had founded nearly five months of future activity. Everything, I realized, floundering through the tropical undergrowth, derived from my hope in an external sign of pariahhood; not a whit of my master strategy had I based on the genuine substance of this condition.
It was too late to reserve either my aims or the direction of my footsteps. You must let the doubt die. You must pattern the sound of your footfalls after the pattern of falling feet--those falling feet converging with you upon the clearing where the foliage parts and the naked Asadi assemble together like a convention of unabashed mutes. And so I patterned the sounds of my footfalls after theirs.
Glimpsed through rents in the fretworkings of leaves, an Asadi's flashing arm.
Seen as a shadow among other shadows on the dappled ground, the forward-moving image of an Asadi's maned head.
The Wild trembled with morning movement. I was surrounded by unseen and half-seen communicants, all of us converging.
And then the foliage parted and we were together on the open jungle floor, the Asadi clearing, the holy ground perhaps, the unadorned territory of their gregariousness and communion, the focal point of Asadi life. The awesome odor of this life--so much milling life--assailed me.
No matter. I adjusted.
Great grey-fleshed creatures, their heads heavy with violent drapings of fur, milled about me, turned about one another, came back to me, sought some confirmation of my essential whatness. I could do nothing but wait. I waited. My temples pulsed. Denebola shot poniards of light through the trees. Hovering, then moving away, averting their murky eyes, the Asadi--individual by individual, I noticed--made their decision and that first indispensable victory was in my grasp: I was ignored!
© Michael Bishop 1973, 1979, 2000. All rights reserved.
The complete version
of this novella first appeared
in Worlds of If Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 1973, edited by Ejler
Jakobsson, and is reprinted in Michael Bishop's collection Blue
Kansas (Golden Gryphon Press, 2000)
Elsewhere in infinity plus:
Elsewhere on the web:
Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:
support this site - buy books through these links:
top of page
[ home page | fiction | non-fiction | other stuff | A to Z ]
[ infinity plus bookshop | search infinity plus ]