A Writer Writes

by Katherine Jamieson (Guyana 1996-98)

IT WAS A STEADY JUNGLE NIGHT, dark and sweet. We slept in the tent as they approached and awakened to their voices, baiting us from our dreams.
     “Hey scouts, you’re not staying up to watch Bill Clinton and Saddam Hussein?” is what I heard first, the foreign names awkward on the tongue of an Amerindian man, young and drunk.
     “What’s wrong scouts, you’re tired?” There were two of them, hitting each syllable and verb tense to imitate an American accent. They seemed to be standing directly outside of our tent. Our bodies were still warm with sleep but we were awake now, looking into the enclosed darkness, no longer alone. The jungle was silent.
     “We are looking for our boat. Someone has gone with our boat,” I noticed that the voice was slurred this time, louder than it needed to be.
     The first voice spoke again, “We have to hear where our boat has gone,” and then both of them were laughing and moving around slowly, shuffling against the soft dirt of the campsite.
     Amerindians are the indigenous people of Guyana, descended from the ancient tribes that first populated South America and the Caribbean. In a poor country, they are the poorest, yet they still have knowledge of the land and are the only ones who can survive in the Interior. We were two young women, a Guyanese from the coastland and an American, camping in a village that we needed a permit to visit, outsiders sleeping in a tent by the creek a half-mile away from the village huts.
     For a time there was nothing and then the shadow of a fist on the top of the tent, a slight pressure on the canvas bearing down. It occurred to me then that tent was like an eggshell, only the pretense of a barrier, a paltry safety. There were no boundaries that could protect us, certainly not this synthetic sheath. We were inches away from them, just black air between us. Our tent was permeable, wispy, the hand above insistent. Our tent was a joke.
     “Open up scouts!” the hand said, and then bounced a little on the tent roof, sending ripples of material down the side.
     “We can’t go away until we hear from the scouts!” more laughing then. There are only two of them I thought, just two of them. All day long the river, the village children, the palm trees on the edge of the jungle had seemed so idyllic, so safe, but they must have been watching us because they knew we were two women alone in the tent. We were so lost in our own understanding of ourselves, our greater sense of freedom here camping in the rainforest, outside the watching eyes of the city, that we had forgotten the watching eyes of the country. We imagined ourselves hidden and invisible, our greatest threat the nighttime mosquitoes. They must have been planning all day to come to us together in the night.
     “Striptease, we need a striptease . . . Like the Brits!” and now we went to hold on, instinctively reaching for each others’ elbows and wrists as if to protect the parts we thought might break first. We were shivering, barely visible to each other in the dark, tensed with fear, hearts beating. No time for a plan, no way to speak or make sounds now, just knowing all we had was this same tissue paper tent, we held each other.
     It is a strange thing how you reckon danger, adding up the possibilities, the potential of two men outside your isolated tent by a river near a rainforest in South America. How much risk is there, exactly, what are the chances they will move on us? I felt it in my chest, this small sense of flying, a growing, tickling anxiety as their voices talked on and on of nothing, baiting us. We were like bats in a cave, lying in the shadows of our tent, pretending to be dead. We were playing dead because we were being hunted.
     “Do you scouts like Bob Marley? Do you like Bill Clinton?” What did they feel like, talking to a tent? Were they certain of what they would do next or were they deciding? How would they decide?
     In Guyana the line between safety and danger was always wavering, always uncertain. There was a constant vacillation between life and death, as if you were just playing the percentages, riding the good chances that came your way and kept you above water. But in a moment it could swing in the other direction, in the bite of a snake, a speeding bus, the footsteps of strangers at your tent. Survival is not a given, it is granted to those who pay attention, those who appreciate that not all survive. I remember it as a sense of “uh-oh” a kind of dumb, cartoonish fall, the bottom just dropping out on you, comical but maybe deadly too. You never knew when it was coming and you never knew if it was the last time it would come.
     “Can we borrow your cup, scouts?” They were picking up our cooking gear now and we heard the hollow metal of a pot being dropped on the ground.
     “We don’t have to do anything unless they touch the tent opening,” I whispered to Ardis. She nodded silently. It seemed to make sense what I had said, but maybe it didn’t. They could have started kicking the tent, they could have picked it, tipped it over, trapped us in its thin shelter. Maybe we should speak up now and tell them to leave. But the artifice of the tent kept us still and silent, pretending that they could not hurt us.
     Then we heard the tiny clicking as the teeth of the zipper was pulled, the zipper of the flap of the tent. It was a delicate sound, careful and strange, the sound of clothes being removed. It was more terrifying than the voices.
     We both sat up now as the opening of the tent widened. There was a moon that night and we could see by the dim light the outline of two heads peering in, the shadows thick between them. Here were the heads to the voices, just heads after all, mouths and throats and the slight glimmer of eyeballs, but we could not see their expression or their age.
     They gazed at us and we gazed at them and though only a moment passed it was the moment between the hunter and the hunted. It was thick with the differential of life and death, it spoke of the possibility of violence, of things done to people in the night. The tent filled with our eyes looking at each other across the distance of gender, culture, race, power. We were strangers in their village, women camping alone. They could hurt us.
     Another voice seemed the only defense against this silence. I sat up in the tent, my head almost reaching the top. “Please go away now,” I said forcefully with the edge of a schoolteacher in my throat. I said it to them and into the night, I said it to be heard by people who were not there but might be listening. “We are trying to sleep and you are disturbing us.” I spoke of their intrusion as a disturbance rather than a threat, as if the thought had not crossed our minds what else they might be intending. “Please leave us alone.”
     The heads floated in the tent window. One was directly in front of the moon, so as he shifted the moon came into view and then was blocked again. They were not big people, they did not move suddenly. We watched them watching us, but we could still not see their eyes or their expressions. Maybe they could see us as we saw them, maybe they could see more, floating there in the tent window. They regarded us in our nest of sheets and sleeping bags, and we were as aliens to them, our foreign-made tent a spaceship from the coastland. Even the ways they might harm us were a mystery.
     Then, they stood suddenly and were gone, their heads cleared from the space of the tent window, the moon and the palm trees wavering behind them. We stayed frozen, not believing they had really left, waiting for the badgering returned, the lap of water on the small sandbar, the buzzing of mosquitoes, the subtle flaps and rustles of animals. We breathed the sighs of nature coming back to us and reckoned our lives, together and alone.

Katherine Jamieson joined the Peace Corps as a Youth Development Volunteer in 1996. Her work has been published by Lonely Planet, Newsday and Lynx Eye, and she is working on a collection of stories about her experiences in Guyana. She won the 2001 Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award from Peace Corps Writers for her essay “Telling Time.” Recently she was awarded an Iowa Arts Fellowship to study in the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, where she will begin this fall.