titleThe dance

name. Liam Shannon

right now. Fourth year studying Product Design

The Satere-Mawe tribe of the Brazilian Amazon task away a full day in preparation for pain. Pain’s purest incarnation, at that, I have read. The bullet ants that bore the mapped floor and rotting wood-stock of their forest are the size of a baby’s thumb, and their sting almost thirty times worse than that of a bee’s. Tricked by men in loincloths onto wooden sticks and tapped into a bucket too steeply plasticized for them to climb out of, the ants tense their mandibles in fury all the way back to the village square or hut or what have you. The men who first risked being bit to gather them have already prepared an herbal concoction meant to render them insensate and paralyzed. Parpondera clavata.  They are dumped and stirred around, to later awake even more furious at having been intricately hand-woven, stinger-inward, into a pair of grass mitts; apparently from afar the gloves seem alive. I was fascinated upon first learning of and about this people. Tonight, again. Tonight.

 

 

The young men of the tribe cannot be called real men until they suffer this pain. Not 21st century suffering, all abject pout and tame loss, nor Hollywood suffering, since a staged suffering would belie the realness of the ritual, but true suffering, primal and distilled. The same suffering our antecedence has always known, impaled and bleeding out in war, burnt alive at the stake in a foreign god’s name, or eaten slowly in the dense Pangean underbrush. They are allowed only a coating of charcoal to confuse the ants, their loincloth, and most throw up any food they can swallow that morning through what must be intense anticipatory nerves. They already know the dance. Hundreds of ants between the two gloves. Each ant is capable of stinging multiple times a second, and releases a pheromone when doing so which encourages neighboring ants to also sting, hence the empty stomach and, I imagine, cold sweat of the young men in question. I can only imagine. They place their upper arm on a nipple-height wooden beam just below the elbow and raise their meek, cupped palms almost skyward into the morning air. Shakingly, they penetrate the forest of ant abdomina inside the gradually lowered mitts, and then begin the dance.

 

Snow falls and accretes on every even vaguely horizontal surface. I am walking home from mother’s house. I told her of what I’ve been doing this winter and the stories in the news, but she barely reacted. l wanted something, some shock or reaction. Some people can be told something straight to their face and still not truly hear it. Perhaps I told her just to say it out loud. She can’t be blamed at her age. She can barely hear anything anyways. It shouldn’t be possible for something to pass through one ear and out the other. There’s never mention of the epithelial or connective tissue, millimeters of temporal skull, cerebrum, maybe some brain stem, maybe some cerebellum, weighing a cross-sectional fraction of the brain’s average thirteen hundred to fourteen hundred grams of tissue but still dense stuff, all of which the sound would have to pass through unadulterated. It shouldn't irk me so yet I get an unnerving itch behind my eyes thinking about the waste of space in some of the heads bobbing around me. I try to see and hear as much as I can. Better that way. Never the prey.

 

 

I enjoy walking through the snow. I like the quiet that comes with it. Snow acts as a particularly elemental representation of silence. It dampens sound and seems to slow down time as well, and I walk through it like a satellite, interpreting and observing, thoughts humming away in the cold emptiness of the night’s space, alone in my head. If I look down, I can avoid turbid drafts of snow getting in my eyes, but I miss out on the beauty of its fall from up high. I cooked mother a stew that should be easy for her to stomach, and didn’t mention last week’s stew still untouched in the refrigerator. She seemed more tired than usual. The tire marks and footprints of Hymus recede behind me as I turn into a side street and lumber with high knees through fresh, undisturbed snow. My conversation with mother was my first in four days, since a gentle, older man on the subway started a well-meaning conversation with me about the weather and I made an effort to engage him but suddenly felt very ill and ran off at the next stop to throw up in a snow-drift outside. I found him foul. I step lightly off the sidewalk and cross the street again, as a siren wails some unknowable distance away. At the end of the street, a hooded figure begins its winter approach, no more than a silhouette. I pull up my hood and think again of the sting, the pain, and the dance.

 

 

While most stung by one or two of the bullet ants are overwhelmed immediately, the indigenous men are different. Westerners or easterners or any visitor on any vector through this tribe’s land at all who’ve decided to subject themselves to the ritual have lasted only a handful of seconds in the mitts, multiples of our quickest possible reaction time, about one hundred milliseconds before our synapses let our most reptilian brain know to recoil, but no more. The young Satere-Mawe men are made of tougher stuff. They keep the gloves on and begin to dance, kicking up dust on the hut floor in tandem with a flock of others, friends and family, a show of strength and solidarity. The men’s faces are rouged and ochre masks of pain, and drums echo through the forest. Their arms are black from spent charcoal and the toxins coursing through them, and they spend several days shaking out a cold sweat, flooring nausea, and shooting pain. Every neuron, screaming and screaming. Before full manhood, they are expected to repeat the ritual twenty times. I first came across all this in medical school, in a lecture about pain thresholds. The dance in the first moments of the ritual, that’s what caught my eye. Brown men in red body paint and scarves stomping clouds of red clay dirt, grimacing through the worst pain imaginable, dancing. Dancing.

           

 

A large white box truck turns onto the street a block ahead, a ghost in the blizzard, it’s white a reflection of the streetlights and motes of ghostly snow all around it; dark grapefruit and cream-orange and warm grey. Between it and me, the hooded silhouette approaches. Tonight.  We both invade the same snow-globe cone of a streetlight’s fluorescence. The hood becomes hair, and shrouds a woman speaking to me through wind-bent snow, asking for directions. She seems pretty, and she’s asking me something through the snowfall, and I look up and past her and the box truck is a few car-lengths away now compacting the thick white skin of the street into two ghostly impressions behind it and I look back at her and she’s just a silhouette with an illuminated halo of wind-whipped hair catching the familiar light of the streetlamp asking me something in french and the truck passes into my peripheral vision just as I push her down and away from me and under the passing truck with a surprised gasp and a thump and then silence, the driver noticing nothing in the whiteout. I walk five more blocks and wait for the bus, my own dance over, feeling calmer than I was this afternoon.