New Voices: “Río Negro” by Lynn Sikkink

April 24, 2023

What happened to Kirsten in the Amazon? That’s what her sister Dalia wants to know in Lynn Sikkink’s “Río Negro.” Determined to find out, Dalia travels to the Amazon herself, to the village where Kirsten was last seen, to try and uncover a truth she may never find.


Even with the motor stilled, momentum propelled the boat through the root beer-colored water. “Is this it?” Dalia asked her guide.

“Si, señorita,” Fausto replied, his eyes on the shore.

If Fausto was right, the boat’s prow pointed to the village where Dalia hoped to find her missing sister. Dalia searched for a breach in the wall of hazy vegetation that had lined the river for endless miles since they left the last tributary. As they neared shore, the teakettle-whistle of the Amazonian cicada ceased, and her ear drums felt like they were beating against the receding insistence of the insects’ calls.

Fausto knelt, rummaging in his vinyl Adidas bag and pulling out a gun.

“For the wild animals,” he told her in Spanish, the last syllable a hiss.

“If you insist,” she replied in English, which had been her only recourse to the total lack of command she’d felt on this trip, which began, really, when Kirsten quit sending messages home. This close to their destination was no time to lobby for gun control.

At first, she thought Fausto had summoned the wildness when a four-legged creature emerged from the trees. But it was a thin dog, nose held high. With a sideways glance at them, the dog turned, disappearing into a thick green hedge of vegetation.

The boat slowed in the dying current’s tug and the stagnant smell of waterlogged vegetation filled Dalia’s nostrils. The river had narrowed as Fausto steered from larger to smaller channels, passing others by, though Dalia could see no difference among them. A jittery headache had crept up from her clenched jaw along with the disorientation.

The sand on the shore was as white as bleached bones. Fausto stepped over the side and drew the canoe through the shallow water. Dalia disembarked with more finesse than earlier in the day, but the boat rocked. The skin from her knee down turned tangerine orange underwater. She imagined her sister’s skin looking bronzed below the water’s surface before she’d come ashore six months earlier. Kirsten had come to this remote location on the Amazon to try to locate the rare monkeys she planned to study.

“Buueenooss!” Fausto called up the short incline, in the direction the dog had fled. A few canoes pulled high on the bank signaled that people lived close by.

Silence. Even the bird squawks ceased, as if driven back by Fausto’s shout.

Dalia stood by the canoe holding her flip-flops out of the water, mimicking her guide’s posture. The missionary who’d introduced them at the closest Colombian outpost told her that Fausto was familiar with this part of the Río Vaupés, having grown up in the forest. The breeze puckered the skin above Dalia’s knees, chilling her despite the heat. She wondered if it was Amazonian etiquette to wait in the water to see if the villagers were at home, like knocking on a door.

A slight woman crouched through the greenery at the top of the sandy bank, followed by the dog. As she stepped clear of the brush, the russet dots across the upper half of her face appeared. Two swooping lines along her eyebrows made her look owlish.

“Bienvenidos,” she said. Welcome. But her expression didn’t change, as if stitched into place by the facial paint.

Fausto pulled the canoe onto the beach with a long motion. Imagining quicksand, Dalia tugged her feet free from the river bottom. It took her a moment to realize the bird tucked into the woman’s feather headband was stuffed. It sat at the pert angle of a Victorian hat ornament.

On shore, Dalia leaned into the wall of moisture-laden air, while the dry sand squelched incongruously under her toes like snow on a wintry Michigan day. She stopped on the embankment below the woman, their eyes nearly level. “Dalia,” she said, sticking out her right hand and touching her sternum with the left.

The woman extended a hand that was surprisingly light, as if filled with bird feathers. “Canela,” she told Dalia. Cinnamon. Certainly, the facial paint matched her name. The bird she wore made sense. She was the curandera of the village. That was what Kirsten had written, delighted to befriend the local healer.

Canela indicated with a nod they follow. The dog fell in line behind Canela, and Dalia scrambled up the shifting bank, still feeling river motion in her muscles and inner ears. Dalia looked back to see Fausto covering the motor, either to protect it from the sun or hide it. He grabbed his and Dalia’s bag and hauled them up the hillside as he rushed to catch up. In her hurry, she had forgotten to collect her backpack and was again glad the missionary had suggested she hire Fausto.

Kirsten hadn’t sent pictures home, only brief posts by way of the missionary’s cook, delivered when he visited the provincial capital of Mitú: handwritten notes on Kirsten’s end typed by the cook into an email that arrived with strange typos and gaps. In the last message, Kirsten had said not to worry; Amazon villages were as dangerless as those on Mackinac Island. When each Dear Family note arrived, Dalia’s parents were elated and relieved, at least for a few days. Dalia both longed for a personal message from her sister and resented Kirsten’s ability to calm her parents’ anxiety with a simple, garbled email.

Canela waited at the edge of a clearing with a tall structure at its center.

“This is their maloca,” Fausto explained from behind. “A house for the whole community.”

Dalia dropped her flip-flops and toed in. She was surprised by the yard-like setting with its solid structure. She realized she’d yielded to the stereotype of grass huts and disorder when she’d pictured Kirsten’s living arrangements. The building’s central beam peaked about two stories high. A wide entryway stood open, framed by painted designs to the height of the door, above which tiers of patterned palm thatching took over.

Across a white background, red, blue, black and yellow diamonds crisscrossed the lower surface. A painted snake journeyed across the happy colors, looking like he’d swallowed the diamonds whole.

Canela stood by the entryway. “On behalf of the headman, I welcome you.” She led them through a doorway; at the rear of the building a back entrance framed a sunlit clearing. The few people inside the maloca glanced their way but didn’t seem interested in the newcomers. Even the dogs ignored their intrusion.

“Rest,” said Canela, using Spanish again. Perhaps Canela had learned Spanish at school like the people Dalia met at the missionary’s compound. Canela gestured to two hammocks tied to sturdy house poles in the shady interior.

Even though her head throbbed, Dalia wasn’t ready to rest. Fausto had unfurled his hammock and crawled inside. “Un momento. Where’s the headman?” she managed, but too late. Canela was walking away. Dalia had practiced her inquiries in Spanish. When was the last time you saw Kirsten? Did she ever speak of her family? She had other questions too: Why was my sister so reckless? Why didn’t Kirsten love her family enough to stay home?

“Relax,” Fausto told her, through a big yawn, clearly ready to do so. “They have to provide hospitality. Sleep. Then eat. You talk later.” He folded his arms across his chest. The bulge of gun showed in the hammock’s cinch.

Dalia sprawled diagonally on her hammock and tried to settle like Fausto, but she continued to sway. She wasn’t tired and the swinging motion roused her unease as the air temperature spiked, like a sudden fever. She recalled that Kirsten’s moods had also been swift. One day Dalia came home from school to find her parents and Kirsten laughing together. Wiping away tears, her mother told Dalia that Kirsten had been telling them about a mix-up in biology lab, but Dalia didn’t see why the lab partner’s confusion about fetal pig parts was so hilarious.  Not long afterward she heard her father use the word bipolar, but it took a few years for Dalia to associate the term with Kirsten instead of the weather.

The bulleted points Dalia had listed in her trip notebook could also be summarized by extremes: dead or alive?

Fausto was already snoring. Dalia eased one sweaty leg out of her hammock, drilled her toe into the ground, and exited the netting. The maloca had emptied. Donning her flip flops, she returned to the river, looking for a cooler current of air. At the water, she crouched to scoop amber liquid with her hands and splash her face and neck. As she stood, she saw a man approaching. He wore blue soccer shorts, a shiny yellow shirt, and black Puma flip-flops. Kirsten’s brand. His calf muscles bulged from lean legs. He looked like a telenovela star with his broad shoulders, full lips and dark eyes.

“You must be Dalia,” he said in perfect English, the perfect part being that his rich voice was edged with a beautiful accent. “I’m Enrique. Kirsten’s guide and translator.”

Oh, yes. Kirsten had mentioned him. Being her translator meant he spoke Makuna as well as English. Kirsten said she was trying to learn the local language, but that everybody spoke it differently. “I’m glad to meet you—my sister wrote that you were helping her.” Though that was the extent of what Kirsten said.

“You can swim if you’re hot—it’s safe by the beach.”

She looked across the impenetrable surface, imagining piranhas. “Why is the water so dark?” Sun glazed the river’s surface but the water looked opaque.

Aguas negras. Tannins. Big variety of fish, though, which is why this village is here.” She felt the breeze cool the back of her neck.

“And I’m here because of Kirsten. When did you last see her?”

He glanced over his shoulder. “We’d been out in the forest. The day before, we’d finally spotted the black wakaris deep in the forest and she was excited to track them. Only, the second day we couldn’t find them. We returned to the village in the afternoon and when I got back from fishing in the evening, she was gone.” He spread his arms. His mahogany eyes darkened.

“How long ago?”

“Twenty-seven days.”

If that was right, Dalia’s sister had been missing longer than Dalia and her parents calculated. Her parents hadn’t asked Dalia to make this trip, but they hadn’t tried to stop her either. When she’d told them she would go, looking into her father’s lined face, her mother stifled a sob. Dalia felt hollow, wishing she could cry like her mother.

“How could she just be gone?” Dalia asked her most urgent question aloud, the uncertainty of how to find out about Kirsten unspoken.

“It’s the Tatuyo,” Enrique said, his voice whispery.


“More like who. They’ve been enemies on and off with the indigenous people who live on this tributary.”

“And you’re not Makuna?”

He snorted. “I’m a university student, like Kirsten, but an anthropologist instead of a wildlife biologist. I came here to study the Makuna, but sometimes I think it’s the other way around.” He glanced up the shore. “My original research focused on ayahuasca, but their traditional hallucinogens have been overshadowed by a commercial drug trade.”

Cocaine, she supposed. The missionary had hinted its production had penetrated remote areas. The ayahuasca was a different story. Concocted from two jungle plants for ritual use, it was one of the strongest natural drugs. Kirsten had said she didn’t intend to try it, but Dalia wondered, given Kirsten’s experience with ecstasy, or Molly as she’d called it when she tried to get Dalia to partake. Kirsten laughed when Dalia refused. She thought it was her sisterly duty to disrupt Dalia’s narrow worldview, as she put it.

Dalia rubbed a temple. “Why would Kirsten be with the Tatuyo if they’re enemies of the Makuna?”

“Because they’re the closest neighbors.” Enrique’s eyebrows rose. “The two groups have an age-old relationship that soured in recent years. The tradition is called linguistic exogamy—people marry outside their language group.”

“That sounds confusing. How do they communicate?”

“It’s an old social contract. The Makuna live on the waterways and the Tatuyo are forest nomads. The Makuna fish with big weirs and have manioc gardens while the Tatuyo hunt in the forest and gather wild plants and honey. Then they trade, a system oiled by the exchange of spouses.” Enrique gestured as he spoke like Dalia’s college professors. “What it means for the channels of communication is that people speak various languages in different contexts.” He grimaced. “It makes fieldwork even more difficult. I’ve learned passable Makuna, but only a little Tatuyo, because it’s mostly spoken among certain relatives.”

She nodded. It wouldn’t have been so critical for Kirsten’s studies, but it would challenge Dalia’s detective work. “How long have you been here?”

“Six years, altogether. When I couldn’t study ayahuasca I turned to linguistic anthropology. This language-swapping is rare. It’s an intricate system—beautiful really—that’s ensured reciprocity and survival for years. But in times of trouble it breaks down.”

“What does this have to do with Kirsten?”

“Revenge. Maybe she was kidnapped.” A buzz had resumed. The cicadas. “But if so, I don’t think she was considered a valuable exchange item.”

“So you think”—Dalia willed herself to say it—“that they killed her.”

“I’m sorry. I found one of their arrows stuck in a tree behind the maloca. The villagers say it’s not new, but they don’t want to make accusations.”

Dalia let out a breath. “Did Kirsten seem restless?” she asked. The half year that Kirsten had been in the Amazon was already remarkable in its length. When Kirsten started following tour bands, Dalia was twelve. The five years difference between them was a big one. Then Kirsten began traveling wherever in the world she could teach English, and Dalia slipped further into the good-daughter role at home. She knew it was compensation, but her parents didn’t recognize her efforts. They’d always been smitten by Kirsten, especially when she started college and went on to graduate school. Dalia kept waiting for her to drop out the way she had with high school. But working in the field, tracking wild animals, suited Kirsten’s wanderlust.

“You mean anxious? Not really. Americans would call your sister high energy. Mostly.” He looked up. Canela had appeared at the top of the sandy slope accompanied by a little girl, both holding food. He lowered his voice. “I wasn’t here when Kirsten went missing. The headman might know something. It’s a shame he’s not here.”

Together they climbed the embankment and followed Canela and the little girl back to the hammocks in the maloca. The girl, who was dressed in manufactured clothes more like Enrique’s than Canela’s, held a large leaf with a bunch of finger-sized bananas on it; Canela set down a shallow wooden bowl full of a pulpy mass the color of sweet potatoes.

Fausto swung his feet out of the hammock and stretched. He’d awakened as quickly as he’d fallen asleep.

“Gracias,” Dalia said as the little girl placed her palm-leaf offering next to the bowl. The girl’s serious expression lifted into a shy smile.

Fausto crouched by the bowl. “It’s mashed fruit. Help yourselves.” Fausto dipped two fingers into the fruit soup and used them to scoop the mash into his mouth.

“No thanks,” Enrique replied. “It’s for guests.” He turned to Dalia to say in English: “Peach palm fruit. A delicacy.”

Dalia’s stomach turned at the sight of Fausto shoveling in the gelatinous mass. She shook her head to decline. Instead, she peeled one of the tiny bananas and popped it into her mouth. It tasted not only of banana but kiwi and pear. She peeled another.

“Kid’s food.” Fausto laughed as Canela and the little girl stood by.

Dalia didn’t mind. All she’d eaten today was a cheese sandwich handed to her by the missionary’s cook before they left at dawn. She hadn’t seen Fausto eat anything, which might be why he was tipping up the bowl to get the last of the orange goo. He smacked his lips and walked away.

“I need to check my fish weir,” Enrique said, “make sure it hasn’t been breached. I’ll be back soon.” He smiled before turning to go.

“Have you rested?” Canela asked Dalia.

“Yes, and thank you for receiving us so kindly,” Dalia told her, tamping down her impatience, working to return the woman’s attempts at cordiality. “My parents sent you this.” From her backpack, she took out the framed photograph of Kirsten and handed it to Canela. The woman held it, as the little girl peered over her arm. Kirsten’s smile lit up the whole photo. The dots on one side of Canela’s forehead twitched. Dalia’s mother had put the picture of Kirsten posing by a lilac bush into Dalia’s pack after Dalia refused the dried wild blueberries and maple syrup her mother also wanted her to take. “No way on the pancake syrup, Mom. I would have to check it and what a mess if it broke.” But Dalia kept the picture. Maybe it would prove her family’s claim and ease the exchange. “I’ve come a long way to see my sister,” she told Canela, trying to soften her jaw muscles. “So, what can you tell me?” Dalia looked around the maloca, as if Kirsten might be hiding just out of sight.

“I wasn’t here when she left,” Canela said.

“She went somewhere? Or did someone take her?” Dalia’s voice stumbled on the unfamiliar Spanish word order, frustration layering her tone.

“I saw her before I went to the manioc fields that day and she only asked me about some leaves she’d collected.” Kirsten had said the two of them were working together, trying to identify the wakaris’ food. “And the headman didn’t know where she went,” Canela added.

“What do you know?” Dalia countered, irritation cracking her diplomacy.

“Only that someone from another village had told Kirsten the monkeys were close by and Enrique was going to take her there.” Dalia could imagine Kirsten rushing off to find them.

“And when you saw her, she was here, in the maloca?”

“Kirsten didn’t live in the maloca, though she would have been welcome. She had her own house. Come.”

Dalia followed Canela to the maloca’s back entrance, hoping to find out more from physical evidence than the inconclusive comments Canela delivered, as if she’d been following a script meant to mystify. The little girl caught up with them and thrust her small hand into Dalia’s.

“You miss Kirsten, don’t you?” the little girl asked, whispering in Spanish. Whatever kind of linguistic chaos they got through intermarriage the kids must be learning Colombia’s official language.

“Yes. Was she your friend?” Kirsten’s charisma had worked on kids, too. It was only Dalia who’d been able to resist Kirsten’s advances when she was home between adventures, though it took effort. Kirsten brought Dalia gifts: a tiny textile bag from Guatemala, a rare seashell, a fragile silk scarf, shot with golden threads, from Mumbai. Dalia stored them on a shelf in the back of her closet, pretending she didn’t cherish them.

The girl nodded, gravely. “She didn’t say goodbye.”

“I know. But she probably meant to,” Dalia said, wanting to console her the way she herself longed for comforting. Her throat tightened.

The girl pressed her palm against Dalia’s.

“Was Kirsten sad sometimes?” Dalia asked.

“A little,” the girl said. “Maybe she missed you, too. But I think she’s happy in Boraro,” she added. “Where the fish people live.” She dropped Dalia’s hand as they approached some women working outdoors.

“Fish people?”

“Humans who turn into fish. That’s why we can’t fish in the river when they’re traveling. The fish people would curse us if we ate their family.”

Spawning, probably. It made ecological sense, Dalia thought, but it must go deeper than that. The little girl broke away.

In the open area behind the maloca, a fire pit sent smoke across the clearing. A woman tending to something in the ashes looked up and watched them go by, the dots on her face bright red. The area was like a back yard, complete with cooking pits, benches, and children playing with a ball made of bundled rags. The little girl had already joined their game.

Canela took Dalia to a small structure, almost a miniature version of the maloca in its workmanship and thatching, but whose only decoration was a red door.

“This is where my sister stayed?” Dalia asked.

When Canela nodded, Dalia slid back the red barrier and moved sideways into the dim interior, inhaling deeply. She’d hoped for a whiff of Kirsten’s perfume, but instead the interior smelled of smoke and must. Was it possible she might never again smell the exuberant scent wafting from her sister’s skin?

Inside the room was a platform that must have been where Kirsten slept, as well as a low bench like the ones in the cooking area outside. Aside from the spare furnishings and a spotted animal skin hanging on one wall, there was no evidence of the room’s last occupant. Dalia had let herself imagine, during the drive to Detroit and flight to Miami, a sleepless flight from Miami to Bogotá, small plane to the provincial capital in Mitú, and a shorter flight in an even smaller plane to the mission before the boat trip, that she might find Kirsten waiting at the end of the long voyage, with a laughing story of an adventure in the jungle tracking monkeys. Today’s arrival had narrowed Dalia’s hopes to finding some clue of Kirsten’s whereabouts.

Dalia took their mother’s rosary from a pocket in her cargo shorts and threaded it through the dry fronds next to the spotted skin, whose dots recalled the women’s face painting. “Kirsten,” she said softly. “We need you to come home.” And I need a second chance, she thought. She longed to say, And I miss you, but it wasn’t altogether true. Dalia had grown up like an only child. Her parents often commented on it. But what none of them said was that her parents loved their first-born more deeply because she deserved it less. A prodigal daughter. And her parents’ tacking between worry and joy over their distant daughter left little room for the homebody sister. Only space for jealousy, then. And now, grief and guilt in equal measures.

Canela was waiting outside. Dalia had half-expected her to wander off.

“Didn’t Kirsten leave anything?” Dalia asked, her voice cracking. She cleared tears from her throat.

“She took it with her,” Canela said, simply.

“With her? Where?”

“She wanted to get closer to the monkeys. She went to live with our neighbors.” Canela’s composed expression faltered. “She wanted to live inside the forest.”

Why hadn’t Canela said this before? Dalia thought they were inside the forest now, but she remembered what Enrique had told her about the neighbors who lived away from the rivers. “Do you mean she went to live with the Tatuyo?”

Canela blinked. “She met them when she was doing her studies.”

Dalia’s whole head hurt. She hoped she wasn’t going to have a migraine. She thought she understood Canela’s meaning, though they were both speaking in Spanish, a shared foreign language. Enrique told her the Tatuyo might have killed Kirsten but now Canela was saying she’d gone to live with them. She tried to find the most precise words she knew. “Can we look for her?”

Canela shook her head. “It’s not safe,” she said.

“Then why did she go?” Dalia asked.

“Because she did what she wanted,” she said, watching Dalia. Out of everything people had told Dalia since she’d been in Colombia, this was the truest thing. Kirsten had always gone where she wanted and done what she chose.

Canela turned to walk back toward the cooking fires. “Wait. Please,” Dalia said to her back. “Is the name of the village Boraro?” She said it slowly, remembering the little girl’s pronunciation.

Canela stopped but didn’t turn. Behind Canela a woman emerged from the maloca with a tipití, the woven tube used to squeeze bitter liquid from fresh manioc. The contraption looked like a larger version of a toy Dalia played with as a kid: if you stuck a finger in each end and pulled, the tube tightened. You couldn’t get free.

“Who told you that?” Canela asked in a low voice. “A boraro is a forest spirit.”

Dalia got in front of the other woman. Canela had used a Spanish word for spirit that might imply death. “Like the spirit of the forest or a dead person who becomes a spirit?” Kirsten’s crazy-happy side had been nailed to earth with bouts of deep depression. Her parents hadn’t said so before the trip, but Dalia knew they’d worried about the possibility of Kirsten taking her own life. She’d come close before.

“Both.” Canela pivoted her palm back and forth. There may be universal human expressions, Dalia thought, but Canela seemed to only display ones that conveyed vagueness.

Is it possible…” Dalia began, searching for subtler words but resorting to what she knew, “.that Kirsten was triste and killed herself?”

Canela’s upper lip curled. “No, that’s not possible,” she said, the dots across her forehead making a narrower V above the bridge of her nose. “She would not dishonor the Makuna by ending her life early. It’s an entry to hell.”

They’d arrived just outside the door to the maloca. Hell? Dalia wondered if Canela meant the Christian or Makuna hell, or both, and whether she thought Kirsten had shared those beliefs, but this line of questioning was beyond Dalia’s abilities. She looked up at the sun filtering through the green treetops onto a domestic scene that even an outsider could enjoy, but she thought she’d found her own earthly hell. With so many translation issues, dropped threads and bewildering possibilities, how could she find the truth? It was as if Kirsten were delivering one last riddle, one that would never be solved.

Canela left her at the maloca’s back door. Dalia stepped in, waiting for her eyes to adjust. In her biology course she’d learned that pupils constrict involuntarily. If only there were a way for communication to self-correct. Even with Dalia’s parents she could never find the same common language they seemed to share with Kirsten. Maybe linguistic exogamy wasn’t just a strange custom of this dense region of braided rivers.

She heard laughter before she saw where it was coming from. “Gringa!” Fausto called out to her, and then laughed again in a high voice. No one else was around.

“Fausto?” she said as she went forward, wondering what could be so funny.

He mopped his face with his handkerchief, still chuckling.

“You should have tried it,” he told her. “The peach palm beer!” His words slurred. He must have downed at least one more bowlful while she’d been out.

Then she saw the gun perched on his belly. “Steady,” she said, in English. So far, he seemed like a peaceful drunk, but who knew when happy might turn to trigger-happy. “Maybe I should put the gun in your bag,” she said brightly, in Spanish.

“You worry too much.” He wagged his finger in front of his nose. “I’ll be careful.”

“You sure?” The gun was pointing at his crotch.

“The missionary sent me because I’m the most responsible one. And I don’t drink.”

Maybe the maloca had cleared when the hosts caught sight of his firearm. “Should we go check the boat?” she asked. It might help to get Fausto moving.

“It’s okay,” he said. “You’re worrying again. The people here, they’re much more civilized than the missionary thought.” He stuck one foot out of the hammock and set it swaying, then jammed his heel into the dirt to stop the motion. “He told me they were savages, because only savages would do what they did to your sister.” He put a hand to his throat as if to halt the words.

“What did they do?” Her voice was firm, but perhaps only by comparison.

“He said they killed and cooked her,” He burped. “They’re known cannibals. That’s why the missionary’s preaching is so important.”

“That’s absurd,” she said, her voice quavering.

“Maybe.” Fausto shrugged. “Now that I’m here I don’t think they’re man-eaters. But there might be others out there”—he waved his hand toward the forest—“who are.” And he picked up his gun and dropped it into the bag by his hammock. He grinned.

* * *

Dalia awoke in her hammock. She’d been dreaming. After Canela left them with an evening meal of manioc bread and smoked meat, Dalia had dozed after eating some of the bread. Fausto, on the other hand, ran from the maloca at the sight of the food, probably to purge himself of peach palm. When he returned, he reported he wasn’t hungry. Soon he began breathing evenly from his hammock.

Though it was dark, Dalia could see someone coming her way, which must have been why she’d awoke.

“Dalia,” a low voice called. It was Enrique.

“Yes,” she whispered back. She didn’t try to stand. She didn’t want to wake Fausto. Enrique stood shadowed, close to her hammock. He could be a boraro himself, she thought.

“I’m sorry about what I said,” he told her. “I don’t really think Kirsten was killed by the Tatuyo. But given the way the villagers don’t want to talk about her at all, I don’t think she’s coming back.”

“That’s what Canela thinks. Or wants me to believe. But what’s the real story?” Even as Dalia said it, she wondered if she could trust what Enrique might say.

“Things are complicated here.” He looked around. “But one possibility is that the headman gave her away. To a husband.”

“I thought they’d stopped that kind of exchange.” She looped her fingers through the weave by her eye, opening the view of Enrique’s flickering form.

“But it might have been like a peace offering. Maybe the headman was trying to reestablish an old tradition and Kirsten seemed like a good opening move.”

Dalia shivered. She couldn’t imagine Kirsten going along with the negotiations willingly, which made the prospect even grimmer. “And where would she be? Or with who?” She felt like she was wandering a familiar path, but still lost. “Could we go to the Tatuyo?”

“It’s a bad time to travel up the next tributary.”

“Help me. If your sister were lost, wouldn’t you go looking for her? Or would you just go home?”

* * *

Dalia and Enrique left in the morning. Enrique had told Fausto the night before that Dalia wanted to visit the place where Kirsten spotted the monkeys, that they would be back by the end of the day. Enrique navigated his little boat up a much smaller channel than the one Dalia and Fausto had followed to the Makuna village, though the water was not as murky. Before she’d left Michigan, Dalia studied the map of the Amazon basin and especially the Vaupés section, a network of rivers like a body’s branching airways, making apt the notion of the Amazon River as the “lungs of the planet.” But afloat on this morning’s watery passageway she thought of the sea, how twenty percent of its water came from this massive watershed, how dolphins from the ocean found their way upriver, evolving to live in freshwater, though certainly not as far inland as this turbid rust-colored route.

The noisy engine deterred conversation but Dalia was glad to be silent, arrange her thoughts if not into order then images, retroactively recording yesterday’s conversations and documenting their confusing patterns, wondering how she would deliver a coherent account of her trip.

After about an hour Enrique cut the motor. The slosh of the prow parting the water sounded like cloth tearing. They docked at a small shelf of beige sand. Dalia helped Enrique pull the boat ashore.

“Stay close behind me,” he told her. “Try not to touch anything.” The trail wound past trunks and foliage and then opened into a broad path tunneled through the jungle. Dalia was glad to be away from whatever dangers lurked in the greenery—maybe poisonous plants, giant cicadas and venomous snakes—but after what might have been twenty minutes of walking, she felt the growing distance from the river spooking her, like the way she’d felt as a child when she and her friends explored a storm sewer off the river at home, knowing she was leaving her one exit farther and farther behind.

“Wait,” she told Enrique. She stopped to wipe her forehead with the back of her hand. Unseen pests whined at her ears. She had to do this for Kirsten. For her parents.

“We’re at least halfway,” he assured her. He took her hand and gave it a little tug, then walked on, guiding her. The warmth of his hand comforted her, but she pulled back. She needed to concentrate on putting one firm step in front of the next. She thought of her grandparents’ farm. It was a place she’d spent a lot of time as a young girl, feeding the chickens and chasing barn cats, helping to milk cows and playing hide and seek in the corn fields with her cousins. One older cousin, solid and good-natured, Dalia had always pretended was her big sister. That cousin was married now with a baby. She would never have come to a dangerous place like this to study an animal you couldn’t even see in the zoo.

Dalia saw the clearing in the forest before the maloca, open air and sunlight beckoning through a wide gap in the canopy. The Tatuyo building was unexpectedly similar to the Makuna maloca. The primary colors of the geometric designs looked too bright to come from nature.

Even the lone dog that came out to bark and bare his teeth looked like he’d been a pup in the same litter as the dog that followed Canela around the Makuna village. Dalia sidled back, keeping her eyes on the animal’s sharp teeth. A middle-aged man called off the dog and came forward, greeting Enrique in Spanish. A dark red band covered the middle third of the man’s striking face. Slashes of the same ocher paint marked the sagging skin of his chest.

Looking as solemn as the man, Enrique muttered what must have been a Tatuyo greeting in a low voice. “This is Dalia, sister to Kirsten, who was a friend to the Makuna,” he told the man in Spanish, before turning to Dalia.

“This is Oscar, the headman of this village,” he told Dalia.

Dalia dipped her head. “Mucho gusto,” she said, doing her best to sound respectful.

Oscar’s scowl lightened. Speaking in Spanish, he welcomed Dalia to the village and invited the two of them to the maloca.

“No. Muchas gracias,” Enrique told him. “We can’t stay. We have to return to the village today.”

Dalia faced the headman. “I came to ask for your help and I thank you for receiving us. My sister, Kirsten, lived with the Makuna. Do you know anything about her?” The dog had wandered into the shade and stretched out.

“I don’t know where she is,” the headman said, shaking his head, “but I know she’s missing. Canela sent a messenger asking us about it.”

Canela hadn’t mentioned this part. She’d just discouraged Dalia from visiting the Tatuyo. “What did the messenger want to know?” Dalia asked.

Oscar frowned. “If we had seen her.” He used two fingers by his eye, like a tiny salute. “Or if we knew about her.” He moved his palm to his forehead. “I only met her once, with Enrique, when they were looking for the wakaris.”

Enrique turned to Dalia. He spoke in English. “There’s a difference between seeing and knowing. In Tatuyo he would have used a different verb tense. He has met and seen her, but he doesn’t know a first-hand account of her disappearance.”

It was Oscar’s sign language that made Dalia feel he was reliable, as if gestures couldn’t lie. Maybe verb tenses about knowledge were the closest she could come to truth. She wasn’t sure how she, or her parents, would live with not knowing. “So, she’s not in this village,” she said to Enrique, using English. “Ask him if she could be living in one of the other Tatuyo villages.”

Enrique asked Oscar in words Dalia didn’t understand. The headman frowned. “Is that what the Makuna say?” He responded in Spanish.

“But some Makuna women do live in Tatuyo villages,” Enrique pressed, continuing his interrogation in Spanish.

“Those wives are mostly old women now,” Oscar said. “It’s been a long time since river women came to live in the forest.”

“How long?” Enrique asked.

“What do you think happened?” Dalia cut in. This wasn’t the time for Enrique’s anthropological interview.

“The last news is what I told Canela’s messenger. A neighboring villager saw your sister. She was with the headman that day.”

“Which headman?” Dalia asked.

“Gerardo. The headman of Canela’s village.”

It was the first time she had heard the name. “The one that’s not around,” Dalia stated.

“Yes. But he must have gone back to his village, because otherwise Canela would have been asking after him, too.”

“And where would Gerardo be now?”

“He went to Mitú most likely, where he has relatives. But I don’t think he’s returning to the forest.” He spat on the ground. “He’s hiding.”

In the provincial capital? Strange to think of the city rather than the forest as a hideout.

“How do you know he went to Mitú?” Enrique asked.

“Canela’s messenger. He wasn’t supposed to tell me, but we’re related. And Gerardo and I used to hunt together when we were boys.” He nodded at the forest. “Wherever she is, your sister is not coming back. You can’t hide a gringa in a blackwater village. The others won’t speak of it because when someone dies, they just say that person is somewhere else. They won’t talk about death.”

Dalia quaked. In trusting Oscar, she would have to credit this too.

“The forest is not like the city,” the headman continued, addressing Dalia. “When the headman goes bad, so does the village. They’re contaminated by the headman’s actions. Canela’s in charge now. She wants to move on, not talk about the past.”

“What should I do then?” Dalia asked Oscar.

“Go with the missionary to Mitú. Find the police and look for Gerardo.” He looked in the direction of the river. “Go soon. Don’t give him time to get away.” He saluted at his eyes again.

On the way down the trail-tunnel, Dalia thought of all the dangers that might have befallen Kirsten. A jaguar, cocaine-runners, or even an injury far from help could have taken her life. But if so, where were all her possessions?

If the headman had taken Kirsten’s possessions and if Dalia could find him and make him give them up, Dalia hoped most for one of the yellow notebooks Kirsten took with her to the Amazon. The thought of finding even one notebook that she could take home, and speaking with the Makuna headman was a better lead than anything she’d learned from Canela. She longed for something solid to give her parents. It might be a first step toward deepening her relationship with them. Her offer to look for Kirsten had been more for the love of her parents than the love of her sister. I’ve tried, Kirsten. I tried to find you, I tried to love you, I tried to be a good daughter. Only the last is something I might succeed at. Now.

* * *

The next morning, just a trace of dawn was in the sky when Fausto and Dalia slipped quietly from the maloca to the shore. The evening before, Dalia had gone to speak with Canela one last time. Enrique refused to go along. When Dalia asked Canela if the headman was in Mitú, Canela said the headman was on a long visiting trek, fishing other rivers and hunting other forest patches. Dalia also tried to speak with the women behind the maloca, but they flopped their hands like fish and shook their heads, before escaping. When Dalia spotted the little girl, her mother called her away before Dalia could talk with her. In the end she hadn’t said good-bye to the little girl, just like Kirsten.

At the shore, a fresh wind blew down the river and lifted Dalia’s hair as she stepped into the water wondering about the notion that you couldn’t enter the same river twice. Fausto slid the boat into the dark, sluggish water and Dalia crawled into the craft’s center. Just when Fausto might have stepped in, she heard a familiar whisper.

“I’m going with you,” Enrique said.

He climbed aboard and Fausto followed. The boat absorbed their weight and floated toward the channel. On shore, a four-legged form appeared, maybe Canela’s guardian dog, with at least one two-legged silhouette next to it. A low whistle pierced the air and Dalia sensed a flying missile that must be an arrow. It cleaved the water. Perhaps it was meant as a warning because they weren’t that far from shore and the Makuna were expert hunters. Fausto swore under his breath and raised his gun.

“No,” she said, and reached out to hold his wrist. His muscles gave little resistance as he lowered his arm. Peering into the darkness on shore, Dalia imagined she saw Kirsten, alive or a forest spirit, her hand on Canela’s bow arm, mirroring Dalia’s posture. The boat began to accelerate as it hit the swift current, pushing them away from the shore steadily into the dark, secret river.

Lynn Sikkink is a college professor (Western Colorado University), cultural anthropologist and observer of all things human. She conducted three years of research in the Andes altogether and has traveled throughout Latin America, including the Amazon basin. After publishing many academic articles and a book,
New Cures, Old Medicines, about the women who sell traditional remedies in Bolivian marketplaces, she began to pursue her love of creative writing full tilt. The result has been three novels and a handful of short stories and essays. She also hikes, attempts to garden at high altitude, and watches clouds for promising sunset developments.


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