Saved by the "Woodbee"
The sudden silence made Niwa look up into the tall balsa trees. The brightly colored parrots had stopped squawking at each other. The howler monkeys werent screeching. "Shh!" he whispered to Dabu and Moipa and the other two boys from his village who had come on the fishing expedition. "Someones coming."
In the middle of the shallow river, the young boys stood as still as the shafts of golden sunlight stabbing down through the green jungle canopy overhead. Their fishing spears remained at the ready. Each boys dark eyes searched the too-silent jungle . . . all, that is, except Moipa. His eyes caught the shadow of an armored catfish lazily snaking its way across the sandy bottom of the river, whipping its powerful tail in easy strokes.
Moipa couldnt resist. With all his might he flung his spear at the fish. "Baru!" he yelled. "I got it!" He splashed forward through the water.
Before he had taken three steps, two men jumped off the high mudbank along the other shore and began running toward the boys. They held their nine-foot-long spears at the ready, but not for spearing fish.
"Run!" yelled Niwa. "Killers from downriver. Theyll spear us for sure!"
White spray flew as bare, brown feet pounded through the shallow water. With strong, agile legs Niwa leaped onto an old log that angled down into the river and raced up it into the jungle. Just before he ducked into a stand of tall bamboo, he heard Moipas voice screaming in pain. He looked back but could not see his friend anywhere. Niwa started to return to help Moipa when he saw one of the other boys go down into the river with a spear through his leg. An enemy from downriver ran toward the boy, ready to launch another spear as he yelled, "Baru! Baru!"
There was nothing Niwa could do. He turned and fled into the bamboo. He didnt dare go back. He couldnt have helped if he had. All the Aucas from his village of Tiwaeno lived in fear of the "Downrivers." If he went back, they would surely kill him, too.
Niwa ran and ran through the jungle as nettles stung his bare skin and sticks scratched his legs. He scrambled up the steep hillside to get away from the Curaray River as fast as possible. The boys had come a long way from home that morning on their fishing trip. There was always a risk of an attack from the Downrivers, the neighboring tribe of Aucas with whom Niwas people constantly feuded. But there hadnt been any killing for several months, so the Aucas in his village had become lax in their caution. And the boys had gone far from their home along the Tiwaeno.
At the top of the ridge, Niwa ran west down a narrow mud trail along the mountains that separated the Curaray River from the Tiwaeno River. The pounding of his heart in his chest kept time with the pounding of his feet on the jungle floor. His breathing sounded like the swish of wind in the trees during a heavy storm, but he couldnt stop. The Downrivers might be right behind him.
Once, his eyes caught sight of jaguar tracks in the soft mud along his trail. Niwa stopped and looked around, trying to silence his heavy breathing. Niwa was not someone who was scared easily. He realized that the tracks had been coming toward him. So unless the great cat circled around, it was already behind him, heading the other way. Maybe it will get the Downrivers, he thought. In any case, he couldnt wait. There might be danger ahead of him, but there was certain death behind him from the Downrivers. He had to get away and warn his village. He continued his jog-run, turning south off the ridge until he came to a familiar hunting trail.
He was not far from the Tiwaeno River now. He wound his way down the mountain and splashed through the clear-running stream along which his own village was located. Finally, so exhausted that he couldnt run another step, he climbed up the bank to the clearing surrounding his village of Tiwaeno.
"Help! The Downrivers attacked us," he gasped. "In our waiting, they may be coming here."
"If they are following you," snapped a toothless old woman sipping a sticky plantain drink from a gourd, "why did you come back here? You will just lead them to us." She spat into the smoldering fire in front of her.
"Yes," chimed in some other women. "Go away! We dont want you here. Go back to the jungle!"
Niwa ignored them as he searched several of the communal houses, each one sheltering four or five families and their cooking fires, looking for the men of the village. Surely they would get ready to fight. But the houses and the hammocks were empty. "The men have gone hunting!" piped up one of the younger children. "Feeling sick, only Gikita stays in his hammock."
Niwa hurried to Gikitas house. Like all the other houses in the village, it was nothing more than a roof of palm leaves without walls. Even though Gikita was only forty years old, he was the oldest man in the village. Auca men died young from all the killing that happened between villages, but also within each village. Niwa found Gikita in his hammock. The mans eyes were closed, and he looked awful.
"Gikita, Gikita! The Downrivers attacked us while we were fishing in the river. You must come and help."
Gikita rolled his eyes and murmured, "Our river? The Tiwaeno?"
"No, not the Tiwaeno, the Curaray, the big river across the hill."
"Then leave me alone," moaned Gikita. "Im much too sick to do anything today. Dont bother me. Maybe tomorrow if I am better we will go kill some Downrivers."
Niwa left Gikitas side and went looking for someone from his family. Nampa, his older brother, was out hunting with the men. And his sister Gimarishe might be anywhere. But his mother was probably upriver making clay pots. She was always making new pots. He set out to find her. As he passed the other houses, the women again yelled at him. "Go back into the jungle. You will bring the Downrivers to us."
"If the men were here," one yelled, "they would spear you for coming back to the village. Get out!" She picked a smoldering stick from her cooking fire and began chasing Niwa with it. Even his Aunt Mintaka joined in the chase, waving a sharp machete high above her head.
Just then Niwa saw his mother coming down the trail from the clay bank. Like the other adults of the village, Akawos ears were pierced with large wooden plugs, her only ornament. Over her shoulder she carried a woven sack with clay pots in it. "Mother!" he yelled.
"Niwa, what is it?" she called in alarm as she saw him being chased. "Run faster, Niwa. Run faster!" And she began running toward him.
The manioc plants in the village garden caught at his ankles as he ran through them. He felt childish running to his mother for safety. At eleven years old, he shouldnt need her to protect him. He should be protecting her.
"What are you doing?" his mother challenged the two women who came to a stop in the middle of the manioc patch some fifteen feet away.
"Tell that boy of yours to go into the jungle and not to come back here while those Downrivers are after him," the woman with the smoldering stick said. Then she heaved it halfheartedly in their direction.
"But dont you care about Dabu and Moipa and the others?" Niwa cried. He stood partially behind his mother, bending over with his hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath.
"At least they werent foolish enough to come straight back to the village," his Aunt Mintaka said.
"Yes, but I think Moipa got speared," said Niwa. "I heard him screaming. He might be dead. They all might be dead!"
"Tomorrow, then, we may be going downriver to kill some enemies," said his aunt, "if the men arent hunting," she added as an afterthought. "But for now, you get out of here." Mintaka started forward again, raising the machete as she picked her way through the plants.
Just then Niwa heard a loud buzzing sound in the sky. He looked up and saw what looked like a large yellow bird.
His aunt stopped her threatening advance and looked up as well. "Its a woodbee," she said as a look of horror spread over her face. "A woodbee, with cowodi inside!"
Both women turned and ran back to the village shouting, "Woodbee, woodbee!" as they pointed to the sky. Even Niwas mother followed them without a glance back at Niwa.
Niwa watched the noisy yellow bird for a few moments and then went over to the tall stump of a balsa tree that still stood in the middle of the manioc patch. It was taller than any of the men in the village. They had left it in the middle of the garden because it was too much trouble to dig it out. Niwa climbed up on top of it to be closer to the woodbee. The women might be afraid, but it seemed to him that this strange yellow bird had just saved him from their anger. He wanted to get a better look at it.
From the top of the stump he could see that back in the village the women and children had panicked. They called to one another, "Woodbee! Its a woodbee!" While some stood staring, others ran for the cover of their houses.
Niwa had often seen small insects called woodbees buzzing through the upper branches of the jungle trees, but they had not been bright yellow, and they certainly did not look like this giant one. He remembered the stories the adults told of the giant woodbees. They were said to be as large as a small house, and they supposedly carried cowodi in their bellies. Cowodiwere there really such creatures as white men? Niwa found it hard to believe, and certainly if they existed, they wouldnt be cannibals. Why, if white men ate people, that would make them more savage than the Downrivers. Yet, it seemed to Niwa, this woodbee had saved him from his aunts machete. He looked hard at the strange bird to see if he could spot any of the cowodi in its belly.
The woodbee was circling. He could tell it was very large by the slow way it turned. He had never heard such a noisy bird. It couldnt really be an insect, a "bee." It had to be some kind of a bird.
Even while Niwa watched, the woodbee stopped circling and flew off over the trees.
Crossing his legs, Niwa sat down on the top of the stump and put his chin in his hands while he looked at the village. The sun was hot on his golden-brown skin. Soon he saw the women and children who had been scared by the woodbee coming out of their houses, and everyone was talking together. He thought that with all the excitement over the woodbee, no one would notice him if he sneaked back. He would probably be safe.
But the thought of the women of the village chasing him caused him to frown. It wasnt fair. There was so much killing and violence among his people. If a man became angry with his wife, he might spear her. If an argument broke out between two people, one might kill the other while he or she slept. Even children werent safe. It was a life of terror that made Niwa sometimes feel like running away. But . . . where would he go? To whom could he turn? Werent there any villages that lived in peace with each other?
© 1997 Dave and Neta Jackson