An Archipelago in a Landlocked Island — Elisa Taber

The Crawling of our Own

The following stories pertains to revised ethnographic statements compiled by the Paraguayan anthropologist Miguel Chase Sardi and retold to me by the Nivaklé informant Marcos Nujach’e Moreno. The indigenous people who call themselves Nivaklé live in the Paraguayan Gran Chaco. They are among those that remained isolated for nearly 300 years after the Spanish conquest of Paraguay.

Miguel Chase Sardi said that to crawl is to copulate. It is how a Nivaklé man approaches a woman. When the act is performed with haste he is likened to an animal or morphs into one. Marcos Nujach’e Moreno added that the forest is thick. At times crawling is instrumental rather than symbolic. Elbows and knees burrow into the soil to push the body forth.

I translated these narratives into English and reconstructed them to grant the reader three options: read the literary translation, read the literary and literal translation, or read both in addition to the footnotes.

Dictionary of Symbols

  ———    = Addition. Precedes literary translation.
( ——— ) = Substitute. Proceeds literary translation.
A Word    = Un-translated Mataco-Mataguayo, Guaraní, or Spanish word.
A Word¹  = Expounded meaning

The Unfurrow(ing/er) of Birds1

We treat them like lepers because (Sôônjalhái)2 their mother (Ts’amtaj)3 became a savage. Collecting parrot eggs with her unknowing husband incited the change. Something shifted as he hacked making a broader hole in the trunk and extracted the parrot’s nest within.4

“Catch them,” he called down as he dropped a frail egg. His wife caught it. Instead of placing it in the basket, the woman broke the shell and consumed the chick. She swallowed the following one whole.5

The nest was nearly empty. Her husband peered down and discovered that so was the basket.

“Where are the eggs?” he inquired. “Did you break them or eat them?” “Silly man they’re right here.” The woman pointed at a lump under a cloth.

Convinced, he continued till the nest was empty. The concealed shape hadn’t grown. “You’ve been eating the unborn chicks!” he accused.

“I am not foolish enough to eat them raw,” she replied in an insulted tone. “I buried them to keep them cool.”

“I can see,” he stopped to catch his breath as he climbed down, “the traces of blood on your upper lip.”

“Wait!” she called out and positioned herself to help him down. “You wish I couldn’t, but you know I can do it alone,” he rebuffed.

“Place your foot in my palm. I won’t let you (don’t want you to) fall,” she instructed.6

The woman cupped the sole of his foot with one hand and his bum with the other. That was his chance. He was a fool not to strike her with his axe. Instead, he leaned into her grasp. His wife slid her hand over his groin and pulled. The man fell over (cried out)7 in pain and hit his head. She leapt over the unconscious body, made certain he was dead. Mauled, neutered him and hung his manhood from their tree.

Informant Tanuuj

1 It is not the verb ‘to unfurrow’ but the noun ‘unfurrower.’ As the husband extracts the nest perhaps the title pertains to him. He extracts the egg and awakens his wife’s monstrous nature.

2 I portray it as a process incited by the egg hunt. Tanuuj calls her a monster before the story unfolds. It is as inherent in her character. She is Sôônjalhái, not only mother to the lepers and husband to the parrot egg gatherer.

3 Her transition into a savage references her inability to contain her intrinsic predisposition.

4 The whole the nest lies within is already there. Her husband makes it larger so his hand fits through and he can grasp the egg.

5 She does not describe the hard but frail shell, the runny egg whites or the shapeliness of the yolk. It is not a surprise that the one swallowed goes un-expounded. What difference does it make if it is whole or cracked open? Perhaps it shows she has grown ravenous. The storyteller foreshadows. He always does.

6 She is in control or concerned. This minor detail defines their relationship and the reason the husband trusts his wife and as a result dies.

7 This segment is distinct in that an auditory experience and an emotional reaction is narrated. There is a thematic inversion of the prioritization of visual over auditory description. He is shown on the ground but the act of falling is not narrated in the original.

The Stud (Stallion)8 and the Married Woman

I will speak to you about9 (t/T)he woman that with her husband and her two sons led a solitary life. She married and had two children but spent most of her time with their (her) horse.10 She tended to it, bringing him water and taking him out to pasture. An animal can be domesticated but not forced to copulate. I know for certain that he desired her.

They had sex every day. One day, she made an exception and slept with her husband instead. Upon entering, he discovered that his wife’s vulva had grown deeper and wider. Afraid reflecting between affirming… Shocked, he vacillated between desire and fear.11

“Why can’t I fill the depth of her vulva?” he wondered.

The next day she set out to visit the stud. The day assigned to changing him to a different pasture.

Mother Can I come?” called out the younger son. “I am also leaving with you.”

“No,” she denied swiftly, “The spot where the stud is grazing is too far.” 12

(The mother/She) was ashamed for her son and afraid he would discover her secret.

The horse’s arousal manifested itself as soon as he recognized her. He would whinny and buck out to her the way studs call out to their mares.

The woman set out alone. She collected the horse at the watering hole and led him to a new pasture. He was far more excited than usual. Her youngest son had followed (without anyone taking note)13 and hid nearby. Remaining unnoticed, as he watched the animal mount his mother.

“My mother’s a savage…” The boy murmured and ran home to his father.

“Mother has been lying with the stud,” he blurted out. “She has become his mare.”

The husband was furious.14 Father remained silent that day. The following day, he trailed her with his bow and arrow. Watched her lead the stud to a new pasture and watched him mount her. Without uttering a word, he drew close, 15 murdered his wife and killed the stud.16 Woman and beast died by his arrow. Unable to foresee the repercussions, he fled. The man travelled aimlessly from one settlement to the next with his sons.

Informant Casamshi

8 An animal that has not been castrated is un cojudo. He can also be a man that is brave or dumb.

9 Casamshi addresses the listener before stating what he remembers. The story is meant to be heard, not read.

10 I omit the repetition of the possessive pronoun. Hers are the husband, the children and the horse. I say she is alone. Casamshi implies they are. The solitude refers to the family’s imposed exile from the Nivaklé community but implies that she is lonelier.

11 Entre sí means in between. What he is torn between feeling is not elucidated. I substitute the ellipsis with ‘desire and fear.’ The difficulty of the passage does not lie in the woman’s physical transformation but in the husband’s hesitancy to react.

12 It is a statement, not a request. He says, “Me voy contigo.” It means to leave but implies they will not return. They don’t. The mother is murdered and the son is transformed. Substituting ‘leaving’ with ‘coming’ expunges the foreshadowed outcome.

13 Visibility and invisibility are the main themes in this narrative. The woman is murdered both because her son witnesses her sexual deviancy and because she remains unaware of the child’s suspicion or the husband’s anger.

14 Husband and father are both furious. The man’s actions are propelled by the clarity of his emotions. Silence is a strategy.

15 Silence and proximity are emphasized throughout this passage. Whether eaves dropping, committing a murder or a sexual act, all three are defined by the approach.

16 What remains unsaid does not need to be expounded on if what is said is not rephrased. He remains silent, even after killing the woman and the animal. Describing sex or murder is easy. How bodies occupy space and interact, after an act of bestiality is not. Neither is the silence that precedes a crime.

The Mare’s Sons

In the meantime they became men.17 The siblings grew up travelling. “We will never come across another woman. We haven’t since mother’s death,” they confided in each other. As they grew into young men this observation grew into their main concern.

The eldest felt he must find a solution. After venturing into the woods he grew certain that he could.

The eldest hit the target from within. He enlisted his younger brother, “Let me throw a doca in between your legs. Perforating the fruit might be like penetrating a woman. If it is, a woman will materialize.”>18

“Do you think I’ll like it?” He hesitated before undressing.” 19

The youngest responded by taking his loincloth off. He waited, bare bottomed, for his brother to return with the fruit. The elder found the plant, tore the doca and hurled it against his sibling’s genitals. His body pierced the doca transforming it into a woman’s. When the fruit hit the spot a vulva took form. 21

This is all I know. The elder brother had to marry the younger brother, who became a younger sister and wife. I don’t know what became of the family after that. >22

Informant Casamshi

17 The siblings become exiles in their own right after their father murdered the mare.

18 The eldest speaks a half-truth. He says a woman will appear. She will materialize out of thin air. The preceding process evidences that something is made of something else.

19 Does the younger sibling experience pleasure? Is this how he is coerced. Magic transpires upon the amalgamation of his flesh and that of the doca.

20 She does not appear. He becomes her. The elder looses a younger sibling but gains a spouse.The same is true for the youngest but he also ceases to be himself. Neither seems surprised by the outcome but both are affected.

21 It is an internal transformation for the eldest and external for the youngest. The first feels an idea take form but has to execute it. The latter undergoes an irreversible mutation in an attempt to experience pleasure. It is clear that he was not seeking this outcome whereas it is not for the eldest.

22 They become sexually deviant like their mother; murderers like their father, the youngest son ceases to exist; and akin to the stud in their inability to suppress desire. However, their initial problem is resolved. They seem content remaining isolated.

Elisa Taber is a writer and anthropologist. She explores the interstice between translation and epistemology in the Nivaklé narratives of the Paraguayan Gran Chaco. Both her stories and translations are troubled into being, even when that trouble is a kind of joy. Elisa was born in Asunción, raised in La Paz, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Jakarta, and currently lives in Montreal.