Maria was smoking damp cigarettes with Horace, taking a break in the humid evening, when the truck full of wild jungle Indians arrived from Ipiranga. She heard the truck before she saw it, laboring through the Xingu Forest Preserve.
"Are we expecting someone?" she said to Horace.
Horace shook his head, scratched his thin beard, and squinted into the forest. Diesel fumes drifted with the scent of churned earth and cigarette smoke. The truck revved higher and lumbered through the Xingu Indian Assimilation Center's main gates.
Except for the details of their face paint, the Indians behind the flatbed's fenced sides looked the same as all the other new arrivals; tired and scared in their own stoic way, packed together on narrow benches, everyone holding somethinga baby, a drum, a cooking pot. Horace waved the driver to the right, down the hill toward Intake. Maria stared at the Indians and they stared back like she was a three-armed sideshow freak.
"Now you've scared the crap out of them," said Horace, who was the director of the Projeto Brasileiro Nacional de Assimilação do Índio. "They'll think this place is haunted."
"They should have called ahead," said Maria. "I'd be out of sight, like a good little ghost."
Horace ground his cigarette into the thin rainforest soil. "Go on down to the A/V trailer." he said. "I'll give you a call in a couple of minutes." He made an attempt to smooth his rough hair, and started after the truck.
Maria took a last drag on the cigarette and started in the opposite direction, toward the Audio/Visual trailer, where she could monitor what was going on in Intake without being seen. Horace was fluent in the major Amazonian dialects of Tupi-Guaraní, Arawak, and Ge, but Maria had a gut-level understanding that he didn't. She was the distant voice in his ear, mumbling advice into a microphone as he interviewed tribe after refugee tribe. She was the one picking out the nuances in language, guiding him as he spoke, like a conscience.
Or like a ghost. She glanced over her shoulder, but the truck and the Indians were out of sight. No matter where they were from, the Indians had some idea of how white people and black people looked, but you'd think they'd never seen an albino in their lives. Her strange eyes, her pale, translucent skin over African features. To most of them, she was an unknown and sometimes terrifying magical entity. To her
most of them were no more or less polite than anyone she'd ever met stateside.
She stopped to grind her cigarette into the dirt, leaned over to pick up the butt, and listened. Another engine. Not the heavy grind of a truck this time.
She started back toward the gate. In the treetops beyond Xingu's chain-link fence and scattered asphalt roofs, monkeys screamed and rushed through the branches like a visible wind. Headlights flickered between tree trunks and dense undergrowth and a Jeep lurched out of the forest. Bright red letters were stenciled over its hood: Hiller Project.
Maria waved the driver to a stop. He and his passenger were both wearing bright red jackets, with Hiller Project embroidered over the front pocket. The driver had a broad, almost Mexican face. The passenger was a black guy, deeply blue-black, like he was fresh off the boat from Nigeria. He gave Maria a funny look, but she knew what it was. He'd never seen an albino either.
"We're following the truck from Ipiranga," the black man said in Portuguese. His name was stenciled over his heart. N'Lykli.
She pointed down the dirt road where the overhead floodlights cut the descending dusk. "Intake's over there," she said in the same language. "You should have called ahead. You're lucky we've got space for them."
"Thanks," said N'Lykli, and the driver put the Jeep in gear.
"Hey," said Maria as they started to pull away. "What's a Hiller Project?"
Another cultural rescue group, she figured, but the black guy gave her a different funny look. She didn't recognize it and he didn't answer. The Jeep pulled away, jouncing down the rutted access road.
Maria groped in her pocket for another cigarette, took one out of the pack, then stuck it back in. Instead of heading for the A/V trailer, she followed them down the hill to Intake.
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She found N'Lykli and the driver inside with Horace, arguing in Portuguese while four of Xingu's tribal staffers stood around listening, impassive in their various face paint, Xingu T-shirts, and khaki shorts.
"These people have to be isolated," the driver was saying. "They have to be isolated or we'll lose half of them to measles and the other half to the flu."
He seemed overly focused on this issue, even though Horace was nodding. Horace turned to one of the staffers and started to give instructions in the man's native Arawak. "Drive them down to Area C. Take the long way so you don't go past the Waura camp."
"No," said N'Lykli. "We'll drive them. You just show us where they can stay for the night."
Horace raised an eyebrow. "For the night?"
"We'll be gone in the morning," said N'Lykli. "We have permanent quarters set up for them south of here, in Xavantina."
Horace drew himself up. "Once they're on Xingu property, they're our responsibility. You can't just drop in and then take them somewhere else. This isn't a fucking motel."
The driver pulled a sheaf of papers out of his jacket and spread them on the table. Everything was stamped with official-looking seals and Hiller Project in red letters over the top of every page. "I have authorization."
"So do I," said Horace. "And mine's part of a big fat grant from Plano de Desenvolvimento Econômico e Social in Brazillia."
The driver glanced at his Hiller companion.
"Let me make a phone call," said N'Lykli. "We'll get this straightened out."
Horace snorted and waved him toward Maria. "She'll show you where it is."
"This way," said Maria.
It wasn't that Horace would kick the Indians out if they didn't have authorization. He'd kick out the Hiller whatever-the-fuck-that-was Project first, and hold on to the Indians until he knew where they were from and what they were doing on the back of a truck. Indians were shipped out of settlements all over Brazil as an act of mercy before the last of the tribe was gunned down by cattle ranchers, rubber tappers, or gold miners. Xingu's big fat grant was a sugar pill that the Plano de Desenvolvimento gave out with one hand while stripping away thousands of years of culture with the other. Horace knew it. Everyone knew it.
N'Lykli followed her across the compound, between swirls of floodlit mosquitoes, through the evening din of cicadas. The phone was on the other side of the reserve, and Maria slowed down to make him walk beside her.
"So what's a Hiller Project?" she said.
"Oh," he said, "we're part of a preservation coalition."
"Which one?" asked Maria. "Rainforest Agencies?"
"Something like that."
"You should be a little more specific." Maria jerked a thumb in Horace's direction. "Horace thinks Rainforest Agencies is a front for the World Bank, and they're not interested in preserving anything. If he finds out that's who you work for, you'll never get your little Indian friends out of here."
N'Lykli hesitated. "Okay. You've heard of International Pharmaceuticals?"
"They send biologists out with the shamans to collect medicinal plants."
"Right," he said. "IP underwrites part of our mission."
"You mean rainforest as medical resource?" Maria stopped. "So why're you taking Indians from Ipiranga to Xavantina? They won't know anything about the medicinal plants down there. Ipiranga's in an entirely different ecological zone."
He made a motion with his shoulders, a shrug, she thought, but it was more of a shudder. "There's a dam going up at Ipiranga," he said. "We had to relocate them."
"To Xavantina?" She couldn't think of anything down there except abandoned gold mines, maybe a rubber plantation or two. "Why can't you leave them with us?"
He was being so vague, so unforthcoming, she would have guessed that the entire tribe was going to be sold into gold-mining slavery, except that something in his tone said that he really cared about what happened to them.
"Unique?" said Maria. "You mean linguistically? Culturally?"
He stuck his hands in his pockets. He licked his lips. After a while he said, "Genetically."
That was a first. "Oh yeah?" said Maria. "How's that?"
"Ipiranga's an extremely isolated valley. If it wasn't for the dam, these people might not have been discovered for another century. The other tribes in the area told us they were just a fairy tale." He glanced at her. "We don't think there's been any new blood in the Ipiranga population for five hundred years."
Maria let out a doubtful laugh. "They must be completely inbred. And sterile."
"You'd think so," said N'Lykli. "But they've been very careful."
A whole slew of genetic consequences rose up in her mind. Mutants. Family insanities and nightmarish physical defects passed down the generations. She knew them all. "They'd have to have written records to keep so-and-so's nephew from marrying his mother's grand-niece."
"They have an oral tradition you wouldn't believe. Their children memorize family histories back two hundred generations. They know who they're not supposed to marry."
Maria blinked in the insect-laden night. "But they must have a few mistakes. Someone lies to their husband. Someone's got a girlfriend on the sidethey can't be a hundred percent accurate."
"If they've made mistakes, none of them have survived. We haven't found any autism, or Down's." He finally gave her that three-armed sideshow freak look again. "Or Lucknow's."
Maria clenched her teeth, clenched her fists. "Excuse me?"
"Lucknow's Syndrome. Your albinism. That's what it is. Isn't it?"
She just stood there. She couldn't decide whether to sock him or start screaming. Not even Horace knew what it was called. No one was supposed to mention it. It was supposed to be as invisible as she was.
N'Lykli shifted uncomfortably. "If you have Lucknow's, your family must have originally been from the Ivory Coast. They were taken as slaves to South Carolina in the late 1700s and mixed with whites who were originally from County Cork in Ireland. That's the typical history for Lucknow's. It's a bad combination." He hesitated. "Unless you don't want children."
She stared at him. Her great-grandfather from South Carolina was "high yellow," as they said in those days to describe how dark he wasn't, referring not-so-subtly to the rapes of his grandmothers. His daughter's children turned out light-skinned and light eyed, all crazy in their heads. Only one survived and that was Maria's mother, the least deranged, who finally went for gene-testing and was told that her own freakishly albino daughter would bear monsters instead of grandchildren. That they would be squirming, mitten-handed imbeciles, white as maggots, dying as they exited the womb.
"Who the hell do you think you are?" whispered Maria.
"There's a cure," he said. "Or there will be." He made a vague gesture into the descending night, toward Intake. "International Pharmaceutical wants those people because their bloodlines are so carefully documented and so clean. There's a mutation in their genesthey all have itit 'resets' the control regions in zygotic DNA. That means their genes can be used as templates to eliminate virtually any congenital illnesseven aging. We've got an old lady who's a hundred years old and sharp as a whip. There's a twelve-year-old girl with the genes to wipe out leukemia." He moved closer. "We've got a guy who could be source for a hundred new vaccines. He's incrediblethe cure for everything. But we'll lose them all if your boss keeps them here. And he can. He has the authority."
"Get on the phone to International Pharmaceutical," she said and heard her voice shaking. "Get them to twist his arm."
"I can't," he said. "This isn't a public project. We're not even supposed to be here. We were supposed to pick them up and get them down to the southern facility. We wouldn't have stopped except we spent a day fixing the truck." He spread his hands, like the plagues of the world, not just Lucknow's, would be on her shoulders if she refused to lie for him. "Help us," he said. "Tell your boss everything's fine in Xavantina."
She couldn't make herself say anything. She couldn't make herself believe him.
He moved even closer. "You won't be sorry," he said in a low voice. "Do it, and I'll make sure you won't ever be sorry."
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