The Missionary has been sick for days. But after leaving Iquitos he’s gotten worse. Now he can’t keep anything down. Even water makes him vomit.
During the hottest part of the day, he drags himself under the frayed canopy stretched across the motorboat’s afterdeck. There are whitecaps on the river. The faint reek of diesel. Sweat rolls off his arms and drips off his elbows. The boat seems not to be moving.
At dusk, the Niaorunyo boat hands—stunted, muscular men with long, perforated earlobes—pitch tents on an exposed sand bar. The Mission—a jumble of palmwood shacks, a crude chapel—is no less than a two-day journey from here.
The boat hands chop up a rotten log for firewood and cook a sparse meal. Piranha, some boiled platanos, a handful of rice. Lizards crawl among the food bags. Their pale throats pulsate slowly.
The Missionary is too nauseous to eat. He can’t stop shivering. His lips are numb. The Niaorunyo stare at him. Attentive but detached. When the sun sets, they let the fire smolder, but the mosquitoes swarm them anyway.
It storms during the night. The rain smashes down loud and straight into the river like pig-shot. The Missionary’s stomach is a clenched fist. Pure agony. Each time he vomits he brings up only air and saliva.
When the Niaorunyo enter his tent, their faces are streaked with red achote. The Missionary watches them rifle through his knapsack. They look as if they’d been slaughtered and had their heads stuck on poles and left to blister in the sun before being reunited with their bodies. He tries to speak. Only his lips move. No sound. Then another wave of nausea comes over him and he curls himself into a fetal position and coughs up more bile.
The Indians squat beside his head and roll him over, their broad feet caked with river mud. They take his rosary. Search roughly through his pockets, under his shirt, surprised to find he has a navel.
That afternoon, lying half-alive in his own filth, the Missionary dreams about the Niaorunyo Mission. In the dream the men are bathing in the river. They wear fiber bands that press their penises to their bellies. The women are naked. Their glossy black hair is cut straight across their foreheads. Red serpents painted on their brown legs.
The Missionary takes off his clothes and wades into the river. The water is the color of tea. Suddenly he is crying. Why? He doesn’t understand. Loud, racking sobs. As if observing himself from a great distance, he waits for it to pass, the sunlight falling everywhere through the tall trees in yellow, smoky shafts, like the light in a vast cathedral.
Jacques Debrot chairs the department of Literature and Language at Lincoln Memorial University in the Cumberland Mountains. His poems, stories and artwork have appeared or are forthcoming in more than fifty journals, including The Collagist, Hobart (web) and Wigleaf.