FROM THE MOMENT I first noticed him aging, I often caught myself wondering whether I would be able to weep over his death in the Wari’ way, in which a sung speech celebrating the dead person’s life alternates with fits of sobbing. In this song the mourner recalls shared moments, the times spent eating together, how each person cared for the other. Some people, seeing me by his side, and perhaps noticing my tender gaze toward the man who had adopted me as a daughter, thought the same and asked me whether I would be there when he died.
I am not. He died in the interior of Rondônia, in the north of Brazil, and I remain in Rio de Janeiro, trying to imagine his body, the white hairs sprouting from his chin, his strong arms. I vividly remember each of these details, and cannot imagine any part of him lifeless. He moves, he shines, he talks to me.
No matter his age, perhaps over 85, his demise was sudden for me, despite his increasing frailty caused by Parkinson’s disease. He had been well, ate sweetcorn with relish, and was able to get out and walk, I was told by his daughter Orowao Karaxu, my elder sister with whom he lived in his final few months, in the village called Linha 26, about three hundred kilometers from Porto Velho, the state capital. Apparently, he ate some spoiled meat, fell sick, became dehydrated, and was taken to the hospital in the city of Guajará-Mirim by Orowao Karaxu’s son-in-law. Arriving already in a very weakened state, he asked to phone me, but someone suggested waiting until the next day when he would be in a better condition to speak. Paletó went into a coma that night from kidney failure and died twenty-four hours later in the same hospital. We never talked again.
That is, I never again heard his voice. I hold on to the hope that he had heard mine, over the mobile phone that I asked the doctor, my friend Gilles de Catheu, Gil, to cradle near his ear. I had no real idea what to say, but what came to me was to tell him in Wari’ (the only language he understood) that I was thinking of him, I missed him, I wanted him to stay strong, and that my sons, his grandsons, Francisco and André, were by my side, thinking of him too. Gil told me that he didn’t move and made no sign that he had heard me, but I hope my voice reached him.
Maybe—I wonder now—he had reached me even before I had called to reach him. The night he was hospitalized, when I was still unaware of anything happening, I dreamed of him. He was young and handsome, strong as always, with all his teeth. He spoke with the same clarity as before he became ill. In the dream, I told him I was astonished by his youthfulness, and he smiled proudly. Perhaps it was already his double who had come to visit me, in the young form that inhabits the world of the dead, traditionally situated, for the Wari’, underwater, at the bottom of the rivers—or, since they had become Evangelicals, in the sky.
I woke up happy from this dream, thinking that now, in January 2017, it had been exactly one year since I had last seen him, and realizing how much I wanted to see him again. But no sooner had I gotten out of bed and looked at my mobile did I find the WhatsApp message from Preta, a Funai (National Indian Foundation)* employee and longtime friend, telling me that sadly Paletó was very ill in hospital. It was then that the many calls and messages began, with detailed news on his state of health.
I received one photo showing him lying on a mattress that was covered in blue plastic. His head was resting on rolled-up cloths and he was covered in a red, patterned blanket, under which his legs appeared spread out, knees apart and feet close together, just the way he liked to sleep. Because he was not wearing his dentures, his lips were sunken. “He doesn’t like being without his dentures!” I thought. I was later told by the nurse that they had been removed to prevent him from choking on them. Later, when discussing the burial by telephone, I asked for them to be put back in. I hope they were.
After seeing the photo, I received information that I couldn’t decipher but that unnerved me, so I called a doctor friend in Rio. I wanted to know what “extremely high” levels of urea and creatinine might signify. Other information was more comprehensible but no less unsettling, such as the fact that he had only urinated fifty millimeters in twenty-four hours and, moreover, that the urine had contained blood. Then, when I talked with Gil, he summed up the clinical situation: Paletó was in a coma. But his pulse was strong, he added. I knew that Paletó would fight. He had already survived many wars and various epidemics, seen so many people fall ill and die around him, that one day, on my last visit to him, at the end of 2015, he told me that I shouldn’t worry about his health because he “didn’t know how to die.” After talking with Gil, I called the hospital nurses, who gave me more detailed news, including that a hemodialysis had been recommended at one point, but then quickly discounted since it would require a journey to Porto Velho, which would have meant about four hours in an ambulance. Distraught and separated by almost four thousand kilometers, I still tried to convince people, including my sisters, to consider this intervention, perhaps his only chance for survival. Orowao, the eldest, had her doubts, while Ja, the youngest, was vehement: “We’re not going to take him.” She was right, since she would be the one by his side some hours later when, emerging from the coma, he sat up in bed, called for his daughter Orowao, lay down again and died. According to Ja, at three in the morning. According to Julião, Orowao’s son-in-law, at five.
It was the message sent by Julião that I received on awakening at seven: Paletó had died. So difficult to believe. And it still is today, a day later, as I begin to write this account. I can only imagine him alive, as vividly alive as he ever was. Julião’s mobile phone took me to my younger sister, Ja, who then placed me in the middle of the funeral song, so well known to me but bewilderingly strange now that I found myself impelled to take part as a daughter. Ja was singing and sobbing. In her song she called me Apa or older sister. She sang that she couldn’t bear such suffering: our mother had died in August with her head in Ja’s lap, in a canoe in the middle of the river, and now we had lost our father. She asked me to come, but soon agreed with me that I wouldn’t be able to arrive in time, before his body was buried.
As I had feared when imagining that moment, the tears ran down by face but I couldn’t sing. Overwhelmed, I was unable to repeat the melody expected of me, or speak through the song. All I could manage to say, repeating myself endlessly, was that we had lost our father and that everything in our home in Rio reminded me of him, a place full of memories from his visits, when he taught me many things, told me his life story, and was continually surprised by and curious about what he saw in this big city, where everything seemed so strange to him. “Don’t people here sleep?” he asked one day after noticing that the lights in the streets and in some of the buildings never went out. “How is a place without shadows possible?” he pondered when visiting an exhibition at the Moreira Salles Institute, where the lighting was designed to cast no shadows. “He’s going to die and you aren’t worried!” he exclaimed on seeing for the first time my stepson Gabriel surf in Barra.
I continued with Ja, my younger sister, on the phone. Singing, she asked me for food for the boys who were arriving for the wake. Singing, she told me about the death of our mother a few months earlier. Clinging to the mobile, I could only repeat myself, feeling so frustrated at being unable to sing. She then let me go, ending the call so that I could phone Gil, my doctor friend, to ask him to take food, which he did right away. He took coffee and bread to the port on the Mamoré River, where they cried, hugging the coffin. “Nobody touched the food,” he told me afterward. You don’t eat while you are crying.
Lying down, staring up at my bedroom ceiling, I fretted about not being there. And then I thought of something that might make Paletó happy, were he somehow able to witness the scene. I called the funeral home and asked them to place him in a beautiful padded coffin, dress him in a smart shirt and trousers, and put on polished shoes with laces. I wanted people, not just his family, to look upon him as someone special, to see him as the important man that he was, so wise, strong, good-humored, curious, open. An adult who never lost the best of himself as a child, despite seeing so many sad things, including several of his close kin shot and killed by rubber tappers sixty years earlier. I once asked him if he didn’t hate White people because of these episodes, all of us White people, and he, kind as always, replied that my family and I had nothing to do with what these Whites had done. I am grateful for his forgiveness.
Larissa, a nurse, and Jôice, a social assistant, there in distant Guajará, went to the funeral home. They asked for the coffin to be changed and told me that they had dressed him as I had requested, save for the shoes. There were none available: the dead at the funeral home wore only socks. “It’s not possible,” I said. “He has to go with nice shoes!” In the Christian heaven, where for some years Paletó had counted on going, everyone is young, beautiful, and well dressed, and most particularly, everyone wears shoes, the rarest item in the Wari’ wardrobe. “Does he wear size nine and a half?” Jôice asked. “Yes,” I responded, but then I remembered that his toes splay out a lot, and perhaps his feet were also swollen. “No, get ten and a halfs.” “Bought them!” she told me via WhatsApp.
The temperature in Rio de Janeiro on this January 10, 2017, is unbearable and I imagine the heat in Rondônia and the voyage that Paletó will have to make to the Negro River and the village of Ocaia III, where his house sits and where most of his children live. Jôice phoned from the funeral home to say that he was all sorted. With the fine padded coffin came a kind of VIP service that included embalming and a wreath of flowers. She took a photo to show me, but I asked her not to send it. I wanted to hold on to the memory of his young double who had appeared to me in the dream the night before.
A short while later I received a message from Preta, now with an attached photo of the closed coffin taken at a distance, showing people laying across it, crying. I recognized my sister Orowao leaning on a nearby wall, looking exhausted, and my sister Ja hugging the coffin. A scene of unbearable sorrow. I noticed a cloth draped over the casket and zoomed in on the photo to see what appeared to be the flag of a soccer team, white and green. I asked my son André, who was by my side and knows everything about soccer, which team it was; he immediately replied, “Palmeiras.” I was confused. Paletó had never shown any interest in the sport and his son Abrão, as far as I know, is a Vasco fan. But Palmeiras had been Brazilian champions in 2016: Had they wanted to give Paletó the sendoff of a champion?
I was told that the voadeira (a small boat with a forty-horsepower outboard motor) left the port at 10:30, the sun already high in the sky. I imagine the journey, the stops in the various villages en route for relatives to be able to see the deceased, the dramatic arrival at the destination with a crowd of people waiting and crying, including three of his children—Abrão, Davi, and Main, who had decided not to go to the hospital. They will spend the night crying, now with the casket open and the body able to be touched and embraced. Perhaps they will take the body out of the coffin and lay it on the floor. Then someone will lie down on the floor and slide themselves under the body, and others will follow, each lying under the previous person, forming a human pile that is maintained until the last person faints and is removed. They want the smells, the liquids, everything that the body can still offer them.
In the past, when an important man died, who had himself taken part in many festivals, the body would be carried on the shoulders of a living man and offered sweetcorn chicha, a fermented, alcoholic drink, just as one offers to guests during a festival. Soon after, his double would arrive in the subaquatic world of the dead, where he would drink more chicha, offered by a man with big testicles called Towira Towira (“Testicle Testicle”). Full of chicha, the double would vomit and then be taken to the men’s house for a period of seclusion, in the same way as a warrior after a successful war expedition. And indeed, for the Wari’, the dead man had turned into a warrior, hence his young and vigorous appearance—like the double of Paletó who had appeared in my dream.
In the past, the dead were not buried, as Paletó will be in his coffin in the cemetery upriver. The burial site was established by the US Evangelical missionaries of the New Tribes Mission, who arrived in the region of the Negro River in 1961 to help in what was euphemistically referred to as the “pacification” of the Wari’. Missionaries remain in some of the villages to this day. In the past, Paletó’s body would have been free of the coffin, placed on the stilt palm platform, held by kin, while other people prepared the fire that would roast it. Two or three days would pass until everyone arrived from other villages to see the body still intact, to hug it and place themselves under it. Some of the closest kin, driven to despair by the death and with everyone around them distracted, would suddenly throw themselves on the fire, wanting to join the loved one in the underwater world where all people eventually go. Usually they were rescued and survived; some, however, died.
I recall Paletó often dramatizing for me the various movements related to the dead person and to those mourning the death, so that I could understand the ceremony and record and film the stages of its enactment. On one occasion, Paletó, Abrão, and I were in the living room of my apartment in Rio de Janeiro. Two chairs, joined by broom handles, functioned as the funeral grill. A wadded newspaper underneath was the bonfire. A cheap plastic doll with detachable legs, arms, and head, bought by us at a downtown store, was the dead person.
Paletó insisted that I take an active part, instead of only filming, so I could learn the details of the ritual properly. He demonstrated the roles of the two groups involved in the funeral: as kin to the deceased, I should cry, walk around crouching and singing (You see? I had even rehearsed the song that I was unable to sing at the necessary moment!) and asking non-kin, one by one, to eat the deceased. When performing the role of non-kin, he taught me to take the roasted flesh, which was divided into small pieces (substituted there by bread) and, using chopsticks, place each piece in my mouth delicately, showing gentleness to the kin of the dead person who had asked me to make the body disappear by eating it.
The dead person’s kin asked others to eat the body to complete its disappearance, as its sight provoked intense longing and sadness. The kin themselves, overwhelmed by the physical presence of the deceased, which left the person still alive in their memory, were incapable of doing so. But it was not just the body’s disappearance that the Wari’ sought when asking that others eat pieces of the flesh of their dead kin; simply burning the corpse would have achieved the same objective. By eating the body, non-kin showed to the mourners that a corpse is no longer a person and thus can be eaten. Hence, they initiated the lengthy process of mourning on the part of kin, which would culminate in their own eventual capacity to adopt the perspective of non-kin, the eaters, eliminating from their memory the human embodiment of the deceased.
In our enactment, Abrão and I took turns performing the roles of those who cry and those who eat, and also, in this case, those who film. Abrão quickly learned to handle the camera, and the stability of the image was only lost when the three of us fell into fits of laughter, one time right at the moment when Paletó tried to throw himself in the fire-newspaper and Abrão needed to rescue him.
Paletó told me more than once that he found it difficult to eat the flesh of people, which usually had a very strong smell, better described as a stench. He told me how a dead woman’s kin once asked him, while still a young man, to eat her flesh. Paletó said that he tried, eating a small amount, but soon afterward quietly sneaked away to vomit. I assumed, since it was the corpse of an adult woman, it must have been far along in the process of decay, as they would have waited days for the arrival of all her kin before cutting up and roasting the body.
Paletó spoke a lot about this during our filming and, in one of the scenes where I feigned eating the flesh of the dead doll, he made me turn aside and pretend to vomit. He explained that this should never be done in front of the deceased’s kin, as it would be considered indelicate. But what was really indelicate, he added, was eating the flesh with the same relish that one eats game. Immediately after death, the corpse is still not animal and, though this is what it will turn into later, it was important to respect the perspective of kin, who still saw the body as a person, as though alive, in the same way that I now see Paletó in my memories. The risk of such a faux pas—eating flesh with a display of pleasure—was greater when the flesh was roasted before it became rotten, as in the case of a dead child, whose wake was shorter.
In the past, everything was eaten. The body was consumed entirely, leaving nothing of the dead person’s flesh. If by chance something was left, it was thrown on the fire along with the bones, all to be burned and thus to vanish. All of the deceased’s belongings were also burned, as well as their house, the plants of their garden, even the tree trunks where the person had sat along the forest paths. The Wari’ called this act of destruction “sweeping”—sweeping up everything of the dead person, which included shaving off the hair of close kin, frequently touched fondly by the deceased.
Paletó once told me that were I to die, he would cry profusely. He would rip up the clothes that I had given him and throw them on the fire. I think about what they will do today with Paletó’s belongings, among them his suitcase, always with him, his clothes, the red scarf I gave him some years ago, blankets, shorts. Will they destroy them? Will they give them away? Or sell them to someone, as they tend to do today with more durable items like radios or televisions? To’o Xak Wa, his wife, once told me that in the past this was never an issue, since the only durable items were clay pots, which would be smashed and thrown on the fire that roasted the deceased.
Paletó no longer had many possessions, since he lived—in the company of his wife, until she died—with one son or another who looked after their parents and fed them. In the last few years, he had become increasingly frail as a result of Parkinson’s disease. He often said that he became weak after falling in the water while fishing alone in a canoe one day. Not knowing how to swim, he almost drowned and was rescued, unconscious, by one of his sons. After that he trembled a lot, as though the cold of the water had inextricably infiltrated his body.
I look at photos on my computer, taken in 2015 when I last saw him. He’s singing and laughing, but with his eyes almost always closed. What didn’t he want to see? This man lived for at least thirty years in the forest, without contact with White people, save for the war raids, and unfamiliar with any of the items of our civilization, apart from metal tools, which they obtained from empty rubber-tapper houses. He had seen the arrival of White people, their new diseases, their strange food and clothing. People say that after refusing to cover himself with what they offered him, he finally became smitten with a jacket, a “paletó” in Portuguese, and began to wear it over his otherwise naked body. That was when he, who had been called Watakao’, became known as Paletó. With his jacket he traveled to other villages and visited the town of Guajará-Mirim. He arrived in Rio de Janeiro, discovered the telephone and the internet, and I see him now, in a photo on my wall panel, speaking with me on Skype when he was in Guajará-Mirim, in the house of Gil, who photographed him. Did closing his eyes allow him to return to these images of the past? Sometimes he would recall something from one of his visits to Rio and recount it to me, laughing, such as the hippopotamus he saw at the zoo: why didn’t we eat these animals, or the pigeons that flocked in the squares, or the monkeys roaming in Tijuca Forest? He was surprised when I gave my son raw fish to eat in a Japanese restaurant: wasn’t I afraid that he’d be eaten by a jaguar that would smell the blood? “But there aren’t any jaguars here in the city, Dad!” “Ah, but what about those enormous dogs? Do you really think they can’t sniff out blood?”
As they did in the past, my kin, there on the Negro River, will stay in mourning for a long time, crying and singing the funeral melody every day and, through it, remembering the acts of the deceased, Paletó, the care and food he gave to his family. They will eat almost nothing, their bodies becoming thinner and their voices hoarse. In the past, after months had gone by, a close family member would decide to end the mourning, inviting everyone to a hunt lasting a few days. They would return carrying baskets filled with dead animals, already roasted, and enter the village at the same time of day as the person’s death. They would put the baskets down and cry around them, in the same way as they cried for the dead, singing the funeral melody and remembering the person’s feats, as well as the small acts of care shown to them. They would cry not only for the recently dead person but for others too, those who were still remembered. And then everyone would eat the roasted game, finally able to laugh and referring to the meat as “corpse.” “Do you want a bit of corpse?” someone would say, tearing off a chunk carelessly, without chopsticks, to offer to someone else. It was a corpse but also, now at last, game. A transformation had occurred and so they celebrated. The deceased, eaten as game, temporarily left the world of the living and people’s memory.
Paletó will not be eaten. Perhaps he would have wanted to be, since the Wari’ were traditionally horrified by burial, the idea that the body would linger under the earth for a long time. But I know Paletó also feared that, without a whole body, he would not be resurrected and allowed into heaven to live near to God. In 2001, amid the Christian revivalism that followed the attack on the World Trade Center, an event they had seen unfold on the community television and which provoked fears of the imminent end of the world, Paletó along with many other people had reconverted to the Christianity of the missionaries. He no longer wanted to go to the subaquatic world but rather to heaven, where all the others who had died as Christians would be waiting.
Today I would very much like this heaven, where he longed to go, to exist, just to welcome Paletó, well dressed as he was in his laced shoes. On arrival he would certainly be admired by everyone; and who knows, perhaps by God himself, who—although never appearing to those in heaven, according to the Wari’—might make an exception and see him arrive.
* The National Indian Foundation (Funai) was created in 1967 to replace the Indian Protection Service (SPI). Both are government agencies designed to deal with all Indigenous affairs in Brazil, including contact policies and lands protection.