Amapá, Brazil

1972

“Why don’t we kill butterflies?” the chief asked in the dying firelight.

        This was an easy answer for Wanato.

        “Because butterflies look after the vines that tie the sky to the ground and keep it up.”

        His father nodded and asked what happened when the Old People killed all the butterflies in an age when the world was new and Wayapí were like children.

        “The sky fell to darkness,” Wanato whispered. “The Old People couldn’t hunt…”

        The words came so quickly that Wanato had to gasp for breath towards the end of the story as Yaneyar the hero brewed Caxiri beer and enticed his Wayapí people to drink, sing and dance until the sun rose again.

        “That’s what makes you different,” his father said. “Not just from your brother, but from all of us. You’re a boy who learned all our stories better than any man. You know the names of all the plants and animals. You even know all the many stars.”

        From the mouth of another, it could have been a compliment, but from the chief, it was an answer to the question that would come later: Why Me? Why not Tuír? Why not anyone else?

        “You’re going to stay with my sister at the Onça settlement,” the chief said.

        Wanato didn’t know much about his aunt except that she lived in the farthest settlement to the east and that the chief thought her husband was “not good.”

        “There is talk of a missionary at Onça,” he continued. “He is teaching Wayapí how to write.”

        While the Wayapí liked to use urucu dye to mimic patterns from the skins of anacondas, jaguars and ocelots, they still knew that the writing marks of Brazilians were different. It was said that their marks carried the power of knowledge.

        Wanato, you must learn to write. Then you will know our enemy,” his father said as both explanation and apology.

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