"It was not on my lips," she snapped at him.
"But in your thoughts?"
Her reply was to work the urucu dye onto his back with angry jabs.
Tabajara didn't want to discuss this problem with Old Mother. The boy's father had disgraced the clan, a dishonor that rested heaviest upon his maloca, since all under its roof were of the same blood. He saw Aruanã go to his hammock, and made a mental note to watch the boy closely for any sign of the weakness his father had shown.
Potira was on her knees, with Sumá, working on one of the few items Tabajara valued as a personal possession: a majestic cloak of brilliant scarlet made of hundreds of ibis feathers, selected with the greatest care for uniformity of size and color, linked together one by one with fiber string and attached to a cotton backing.
Tabajara. also prized his other feather adornments: a high headdress of bright yellow and an ostrich bustle he'd wear on his rump.
Now only his face remained to be painted; but, before Old Mother attended to this, she inspected him closely - and gave a little cry of triumph when she found a tiny hair at the edge of an eyelid. He gritted his teeth, great warrior that he was, when Old Mother plucked out the offending growth, gripping it with the edges of two small shells.
His face finally painted, Tabajara put the finishing touches to his appearance: He slipped a green stone, twice the size of the simple bone plug worn by Aruanã, into the hole in his lower lip, making it protrude in a way that brought murmurs of approval from his wives.
It was the first time the boys had seen the elders in full dress for their benefit alone. They sat in a semicircle on the ground between the malocas.
Tabajara was shorter than most men of the clan, but with his tall diadem he appeared as a giant before the boys.
"Sleep soundly this night, O Macaw, bird of the forest, wing of our ancestors," he said. "Sleep soundly, for those that will seek you are as worms of the dawn. How our enemies will rejoice when these poor things are sent against their villages."
His words were greeted with approving noises from the other elders, and the men, who stood around the clearing, echoed their feeling between gulps of fresh beer from the gourds passed among them.
Aruanã wanted the earth to take him when Tabajara, who had been pacing in front of them, stopped opposite him, the light from the log fires deepening the shades on his body and making his appearance as fearsome as anything Aruanã imagined among the spirits that filled the darkness.
"To your feet, boy!"
Aruanã scrambled up.
"Step closer to the fire so all may behold." When the boy was in the light, Tabajara went on: "Tell me, my child, why there is hope that you will find the feathers of Macaw."
Aruanã felt his heart pounding in his chest. "It is my wish to be a man of this tribe," he said, with a firmness that surprised even him. "This is my first duty, to get the pagé's feathers, and I will not fail."
"Strong words, my child, but to find Macaw, you have to enter the forest alone. There will be no warriors to silence your whimpers. What if Caipora dances in your path? What if the one who seeks tabak is there?
Tobacco Man, a specter like the woman who hopped on one leg, lay in wait for lone warriors and demanded the sacred herb, attacking them if they failed to supply it. "I cannot say what I will do."
The boy was honest, Tabajara thought. He was surprised that this son of the nameless one should answer so forthrightly and show so little fear in front of the elders. Many boys would be too frightened to utter a word.
Suddenly, all eyes turned as out of the shadows crept an ugly figure, mumbling incoherently. Among his people, Naurú was the only one with a physical defect - a bent back and twisted leg. Ordinarily among the Tupiniquin, deformed children were killed at birth, for their tortured bodies revealed the displeasure of the spirits. But Naurú's mother had disobeyed this dictate and hidden him in a secret place at the edge of the forest, until the passing of several Great Rains, and his survival was seen as miraculously intended by those same spirits who would have condemned him. The terrifyingly lonely time in a shelter his mother had scratched out of a riverbank had left him with a cold, solitary manner and a certain ignorance of those things boys of his age feared about the forest. He soon came to the attention of the former village pagé, who had led him to the secrets of that mystical world where ordinary men were interlopers.
Copyright Errol Uys. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this excerpt contact the author at http://www.erroluys.com.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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