Nula oruav boboti. Kuma sanii dolosa śaiouos judou.Good friends are like butt cheeks. They stay together despite constant friction.—Mesdu proverb
This mission, studying an isolated culture that was largely uncorrupted by the rest of the global community, was the holy grail of my anthropology career. I wanted to be the one who cracked the language of the Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands, or the first to document the tribes and customs of the uncontacted tribes of West Papua, or maybe the one who gained fame for shedding light on the tribes of the terras indígenas in Brazil.
Studying the Mesdu was perfect. Apart from a few diplomatic contacts, nobody had ever heard of them. The only real documentation we had of their language was an old Swadesh list, since the bulk of the language research had been deleted from our computer. From an anthropological perspective, they were pure and exotic, and I’d be able to start completely from scratch.
And then I learned that the indigenous woman from whom I was learning the ways of this mysterious civilization had actually graduated three years ago from the University of California at Berkeley.
She had a degree in political science.
She liked anchovies on her pizza.
Her favorite movie was The Little Mermaid.
Apparently, the Mesdu weren’t as pure and isolated as I’d thought. It had never occurred to me that they might have been leaving their island and exploring the world on their own.
She was hesitant to share details because most of the other Mesdu didn’t know about it either, but she said that all members of the royal family were expected to go to high school and college in another country. They smuggled them off on ships visiting Gough Island, or sometimes by way of Tristan da Cunha, the island about 250 miles northwest of Gough.
It felt like winning the lottery and then discovering I was off by one digit. There was still endless work to be done here, of course, but this wasn’t anywhere close to the pristine culture I thought I was studying. I felt defeated. Not that my anthropological goals even mattered much anymore, of course, given that a band of XCG mercenaries was currently en route to help topple the current political structure—and probably change that culture forever.
Kemma said most Dasa clans would quickly align themselves with the insurrection, and then we’d find ourselves in the middle of a civil war that had been brewing for three centuries. Neighboring clans would turn on each other. Nobody would be afraid to kill, since the Mesdu don’t stigmatize death the same way outsiders do. They’d slaughter each other until there was nobody left to kill. She said she wouldn’t be surprised if two-thirds of the island’s inhabitants died in the coming battle.
Not ready to deal with the realities of this new world, we stayed in the cave a little longer. I looked through the history tablets and asked Kemma questions about both the history and the writing system. I wanted to spend a lot more time on it, but she and I both eventually had to acknowledge that it was time for us to take action. Somehow, we had to get back into the base to send a distress message. We had to get the word out about what had happened so the State Department could send someone to get me out of here and do something about Noah.
Reluctantly, we crawled back out the entrance to the story cave. It was a cold morning, and there was a miserable drizzle dribbling out of the sky. We were both hungry, but there wasn’t anything readily edible around us, so that would just have to wait. We hiked slowly, trying to conserve our energy while travelling safely through the slippery terrain.
We talked about possible scenarios we might encounter back at the base, but the truth was that we had no idea what we were about to walk into. He could be watching for us to return, or he could be inside, nursing his wounds. He could have radioed his handlers to let them know what had happened. He could have forged our report to the U.S. to tell them everything was fine. No matter what we found, it all came down to the fact that he had a gun, and we didn’t.
As we got closer to the base, we traveled more carefully to avoid being seen, staying low among the ferns and short trees. We were so dirty by that point that we were essentially camouflaged, but the base had a good view of the surrounding area and we had to assume Noah was watching.
Eventually, the white, single-story base emerged into our line of sight. It was an uninteresting structure in itself, but seeing it filled me with dread and a little panic after what we’d just been through there yesterday—as well as some deep concern about what might be waiting for us there.
After an hour of sneaking around, we found a position on a fern-covered mound where we could keep an eye on the compound without easily being seen ourselves. We lay down on our bellies, watching for signs of movement near the base. There were none so far.
Kemma stuck her elbows in the mud and rested her head on them. “I didn’t like much American food,” she whispered, “but I still get hungry for buffalo wings.”
I turned to her. “What? Buffalo wings?”
She nodded, smiling. “I don’t know the buffalo bird, but I love it.”
“I think it’s just cayenne pepper sauce and butter on chicken.”
“They’re delicious. I want to eat them again someday.”
“We have that stuff at the base, you know.”
Her eyes widened. “We can cook buffalo wings here?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You have to do this for me!”
“Fine. Just stop talking about food, okay?”
Hunger gnawed at my stomach after the intense hiking and light eating of the last two days. Apparently, my tone was harsher than I’d intended, though, because she raised her eyebrows and didn’t talk for a while.
Some time passed, maybe 45 minutes or so. Kemma pointed toward the western corner of the base. “Is that him?”
I squinted. It was hard to make anything out in the hazy morning light, but eventually I saw what could only have been Noah. He walked slowly and deliberately around the perimeter of the building, exploring the area through the scope of his rifle. He wore the same blood-stained clothes as yesterday—though it appeared he’d bandaged up his wounds. He’d probably been keeping a pretty regular watch with minimal sleep.
We watched him for over an hour, trying to understand his movements. He explored one section of his perimeter, then swung around to survey a different section, seemingly at random. He paced around the building, sometimes stopping short and reversing direction, or sprinting to the other side.
He expected us. He knew the only risk to their operation was that we get back into the base and communicate back to our people in the States. If we couldn’t do that, then their plan’s success was all but inevitable. There was no way the loyalists to the Queen could stop a Dasa revolt aided by professional mercenaries and modern firepower.
All Noah had to do in the meantime was make sure his movements weren’t predictable enough that we could rush the base without him seeing us coming. As long as he kept moving around randomly, we wouldn’t have a clear opportunity. And his job was made easier by the fact that half the base’s perimeter was lined by cliffs overlooking the sea, so he knew we couldn’t come from that direction.
It was basically a shooting gallery. We didn’t have a chance.
Then my leg felt warm. And wet.
I turned slowly saw a young Mesdu boy standing nearby. He stood with his hands on his hips, back arched, looking up at the sky and urinating all over my leg. He hadn’t noticed us there.
When he finished, he looked down and we made eye contact. He yelped and jumped backwards, then took off running back toward the Laga village.
Kemma got to her feet and chased after him. He screamed for help, then Kemma tackled him to the ground among some tall bushes. She put her hand over his mouth.
I rolled over and glanced back toward the base. Noah had turned and looked our direction through his sights. I pressed my face down sideways into the mud. Trying my best to simply disappear.
A woman yelled the boy’s name in the distance.
A few seconds later, she yelled again, this time closer.
Then a man yelled as well. And another man.
I heard Kemma’s voice from somewhere in the ferns behind me. “Saka, we have to run.”
“Noah’s looking right at us,” I said. “He’ll kill us if we get up.”
I glanced back and saw three adults approaching quickly, calling for the boy.
Kemma let him go. He sprang up and ran toward the adults, sobbing and crying out. They embraced him, then knelt down and asked him what happened.
“We have to run,” Kemma said again.
I really, really didn’t want to run. I just wanted to lie down in the sun and go to sleep. But we couldn’t. Not yet.
“Fine,” I said. “Go.”
We got to our feet and took off running. The three adults had come around behind us, so we couldn’t just run back the way we’d come, away from the base. We’d have to go around them.
I’d hoped they’d be busy enough with the boy not to notice us for a few seconds, but it didn’t work out that way. The two men sprang into action, leaping over plants and rocks on a course to intercept us, one going after Kemma and the other after me. We tried to fake left or right a couple of times, but they weren’t buying it. No matter what we did, they got closer.
Then I heard the now-familiar whizzing of bullets followed by slightly delayed gun reports from the base. I dropped to the ground again, and Kemma did the same.
The stockier of the two men jumped on me and began rapping my head with a fist. I yelled “I give up! You got me! Just stop!” but I couldn’t think of how to say it in Mesdu while he was thumping my skull. I heard Kemma yelling nearby. They’d caught her too.
A bullet ripped through a nearby fern and leaf particles dropped onto my face.
I stopped resisting and just put my hands up in front of my face. We were busted.
The men pulled us to our feet. I twisted around behind the stocky one, putting him between me and the base, and ducked down below Noah’s line of sight, obscured by the plants and rolling terrain. From this angle, it would be difficult for him to see us unless we stood up fully. Kemma followed my example, and the other Laga clansmen did too when they saw how we reacted to the occasional gunshots that came our way from the base. They were confused by it, but they could see we were worried.
I looked for opportunities to break away, but they weren’t about to let it happen. One of them stayed close, prodding us along, while the others spread out, ready to pounce if we made a run for it. Together, they herded us unceremoniously back toward their village.
I turned to Kemma. “Now what?”
“I think they’ll cut off our heads,” she said, “but I’m not sure.”
• • • •
Kemma and I sat in a small, round room with stone block walls. The sunlight coming through the ventilation holes in the roof went nearly straight down, projecting distorted bars of light into the hard-packed dirt floor.
An older Mesdu man dressed in a dark poncho leaned against the wall with his eyes closed. We’d exchanged pleasantries when we were first shoved into this cell with him. He’d fallen back asleep right afterward. He was a member of the neighboring Moa clan, awaiting judgment for stealing a spear from a Laga fisherman.
Strange music came from outside. Over a bed of slow, insistent bass tones, there was a scratchy, soulful melody in a voice that sounded vaguely like a bagpipe or accordion. The whole piece was played slowly and deliberately, with almost minimalist precision.
It was a wedding quartet, according to Kemma. The accompaniment was provided by a wooden drone horn, a large two-stringed bass, and something like a deep marimba. The melody was given by an instrument called a kova that was—as best I could understand from her explanation—a reed instrument with twenty pipes of varying sizes with small wooden keys.
Kemma and I lay on the ground and listened. I said it felt like meditation music, and she explained that’s basically what it was. The couple to be married would be sitting outside in the village center surrounded by other clan members, saying and doing nothing except for listening and contemplating the music. The various musical phrases each represented different aspects of married life, and by focusing on the music they would prepare themselves mentally to be wed.
“I wish I married before I died,” Kemma said. She lay with her hands behind her head, smiling at the thought. “I always wanted to marry.”
“You still can someday. Why are you saying that?”
“They’ll kill us today.”
“They’re not going to kill us,” I said. “We’ll explain.”
“You don’t know how we Mesdu think. We’re not so worried about life as you are.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed. Why?”
“Did I explain about Erku?”
I shook my head.
“Okay,” she continued, sitting up, “Erku is the…um…ghost? Soul? I don’t know the right word. Erku is inside all of us. It’s one person who takes turns in different bodies. When I die, I’ll be born as someone else. Maybe a thousand years before. Maybe a thousand years after. Maybe I’ll be reborn as you. Maybe you’ll be reborn as me. Nobody knows.”
I also sat up. “So, it’s kind of like reincarnation…plus time travel?”
“We aren’t afraid to die because we know there is only one person. Killing me is just sending me to my next life. All of us are the same person passing through many lives at different times, like stopping at different villages while walking across the island.”
The old fisherman leaning against the far wall opened his eyes. “E dilima gogogo jas?” he asked. (Why are you speaking gibberish?)
“Setoma tai mo taiv lombau, Erku.” (I’m teaching him about us, Erku.)
The man threw his hands up. “E minama du suagas tai lombau?” (He doesn’t know me?)
She laughed. “Au du tai!” (Or me!)
“This is a little creepy,” I said. “And that music outside really isn’t helping.”
The man reached into his poncho and pulled out a few wooden tubes, each about six inches long with a small cork on either side. “Isima sjaras albam.” (I must celebrate this.)
“Ahhh,” Kemma said, and crawled over to him. She took the tubes. “Jama tai suozuba,” (I’m very wise.)
The man grinned. “Jama tai.” (Yes, I am.)
Kemma crawled back and sat next to me. “Saka, this is…tarsu. I don’t know it in English. It’s a plant root. We make a paste, then dry it in the sun and crush it into this powder. It will help you understand. It makes us see the whole universe. You’ll see who we are.”
The old man got to his feet with some effort and walked over to us, sitting next to Kemma. “Puidma rum kanzaza tarsu?” he asked. (You’ll allow an outsider to breath tarsu?)
Kemma nodded. She took one of the tubes, held it horizontally, shook it lightly, and gently pried the wooden corks out of each end.
The man leaned his head back, and Kemma turned to help him, placing the tube up to his nose. He closed his eyes, and she put her lips to the tube and puffed into it. The man coughed, then smiled, nodded, and rested his head on his knees.
“Your turn,” Kemma said, holding the next tube up and shaking it to even out the powder inside.
I held my hands up. “No way I’m snorting that.”
“You want to understand us.”
“I do, but this isn’t—”
“No one from outside Ao has ever taken tarsu. You will be the first.” She pried the corks out of the ends of the tube. “No tarsu, no understanding. They’ll probably kill us in a few hours. Then you’ll be a baby, many miles and many years away. It will be a long time before you can try this again.”
“Kemma, I’m not going to let them kill us.”
“Lean your head back. When you close your eyes, I’ll blow it into you. Breath in through your nose. Only think about good things. Do you understand?”
“What does it do?” I asked.
“It helps you understand,” she said. “Lean back.”
I figured it couldn’t be as strong as some of the things I’d tried in high school, which had had the advantage of modern refinement techniques. This would probably be tame in comparison. I wasn’t a fan of hallucinogens, but I wasn’t unfamiliar with them either. And I reminded myself that Chagnon had done almost the same while studying the Yamomamö in the Amazon Basin. Sometimes you have to do as the natives do to truly understand them. I was an anthropologist. This was an occupational hazard.
I looked over at the old man. He seemed to be doing fine, apart from a runny nose.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll try it.”
“We’ll remember who we are again, Erku.” she said. “We’ll see what Nadu Kai sees from the sky.”
I tilted my head back, closed my eyes, and inhaled.
Over the next several hours, an epic drama unfolded vividly before my eyes, with every fantasy, fear, triumph, goal, or embarrassing moment of my life reenacted by a cast of angels, demons, warriors, sorcerers, kings, queens, maidens, animals, heroes, anti-heroes, savages, politicians, farmers, giants, dwarves, ex-girlfriends, celebrities, coworkers, monsters, robots, and aliens.
And all of them were me.
And I was all of them.
• • • •
I woke up naked, covered in snot and crusty, dried blood.
My mind ached. It felt like weeks had passed.
I sat up slowly. We were still in the same room. It was darker now, and raining. The ventilation hole in the ceiling had no cover. Heavy raindrops passed through and splattered on the dirt floor.
Kemma lay near the middle of the floor, covered in dried blood from her neck to her knees. I looked closer and saw a set of diagonal cuts across her chest, just above her breasts. Her face and the ground near it were covered in green mucus, apparently from the irritation of whatever we’d inhaled. Her legs were splattered with specks of mud kicked up by the rain falling near her through the hole in the ceiling.
I would have panicked if I’d had the energy. She was breathing, at least.
The old man paced the perimeter of the room, arms behind his back. He smiled and cupped his hand in front of his face in greeting.
I tried to ask what happened, but my crusty mouth wouldn’t form any intelligible words. I coughed up some brown phlegm.
The old man pointed to his face and then to the column of rainwater falling through the ventilation hole in the roof. I got what he meant. Cleaning up would help.
The floor and the walls spun in different directions as I got to my feet. I hobbled over to where the fat, cold raindrops fell and let it hit my head and run down my body. I coughed and spit and drank and scrubbed and spit some more.
My chest stung when I touched it. I rubbed it to scrape off the blood, then caught some flesh and realized I had the same diagonal cuts that Kemma did.
Once I’d cleared my throat out enough to talk, I asked in Mesdu, “What happened?”
“Eh?” the old man responded.
I repeated myself louder.
The old man pointed to my chest, and then to Kemma.
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “What is this?” I asked.
“You shared blood,” he said in Mesdu.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“You cut and mated. You’re her husband now.”
My brain basically shut off at that point.
He waited for me to respond, then chuckled at my silence. “You found yourself, Erku.”
I bent down to Kemma and shook her. “Hey, wake up,” I said in English.
She flopped like a rag doll at first, then eventually winced and tried to roll away from me.
I tapped her face with my fingers. “Kemma, get up.”
She turned and glared at me, then felt the mucus on her nose and mouth and wiped it away, flicking it on the dirt floor. “What?” she croaked.
She blinked as she tried to wake up, then went wide-eyed when she saw my chest. She looked down at her own and saw herself covered in blood. She was silent for a moment, then started giggling nervously.
“What the hell did you give me?” I asked. “What happened?”
“I think we’re married now,” she said.
“We are not married.”
“The tarsu never lies. We saw pure wisdom. We saw each other as Erku, and we knew to do this. This is the right thing.”
“The hell it is. I've never wanted to be married.”
“You wanted it a few hours ago.”
“This is ridi…cu—”
I woke up on my back, near the wall, with a vicious headache. Kemma had cleaned herself up and gotten dressed. She sat nearby talking with the old man.
I asked what happened, but I already knew the answer. I hadn’t eaten in a day and a half, I’d lost a non-trivial amount of blood, and I’d just gotten off a deeply disturbing drug trip to find out I was married, all while waiting to be executed. I don’t think anyone could fault me for passing out.
“E maiama timi?” Kemma asked. (You okay?)
I shook my head, and immediately regretted it. It felt like my brain was bruised. “Purkamia du.” (Don’t ask.)
“I have good news,” she said, pointing to the old man. “My friend Bolu here has an idea. He says we can get out of the execution.”
I sat down next to them. “What do we do?”
“When a clan has more than 400 members, it has to be divided into two clans, so no clan grows much more powerful than others. The Laga have 415 people now, but they don’t tell anyone because they don’t want to divide yet.”
“I’m…lost,” I said.
“When a clan is more than 400 people, it’s not valid. It’s too big. Their clan laws stop, and they must follow island law. Laga law says death for trespassing, but island law only says to banish.”
“That’s great, right? We’re off the hook?”
“Yes, we’ll be okay. My father was a sailor. I teach sailing. I’m good on a boat.”
It took a moment for that to sink in. “Wait…banished from the whole island?”
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