Jivaro Indian Head-Shrinking

October 9, 2008
By Bailey Hager, Bethlehem, PA

The war raged around me. Sides almost equal. I could hear the birds in the sky cawing, crows and blackbirds waiting for the feast to come. The clouds overhead were almost deadly dark, reminding me of nightmares. We could hear our ancestors thundering and throwing lighting from above as if they battled with us.

Our army was strong, that it was. My tribe, the Shuar, knew that a battle was coming and trained many new warriors. Our warriors swarmed over the hills and around mountains tall as giants. The Inca whelps marched onto us, quickly decimating our front ranks. But that was what slaves were for. Train them a little, give them a knife, and put them in the front ranks. The enemy thinks little of us as it is. Seeing what they think are trained warriors falling beneath their pitiful spears will make them lower their guard, giving our rows of seasoned and battle-scarred heroes the greater advantage. What a great advantage!

The bloodlust soon took hold of most. We needed to avenge our dead cousins, brothers, neighbors. A battle only months before left many of our families dead or dying. Wounded beyond the point of healing. It was only natural to us to need to get revenge. In blood.

Our enemy’s blood.

And a lot of it.

Our warriors and the Inca’s crowded together in a small pass. We still maintained the advantage, using a pincer movement to encircle the army and then making our way through their main force. Once separated, the enemy army would soon fall.

I had just been promoted to our chief’s Personal Guard. It was my duty to make sure that no harm came to our beloved leader, Huaman. I was close behind him, swinging a long knife in every direction. Seeing an Inca slip in front of me, a low growl escaped my mouth. Without any thought, I hurled myself at the threat, claming my fingers around his throat. The fighter gave no resistance, and soon he slumped on the ground. Dead.

My long black hair was moist with the sweat that ran down my body. A tough hide protected my torso while a kilt of woven, tough rope would keep my legs safe. Nobody could hurt me. I swung again and again with my knife, severing the hand of one and stabbing another in the base of the neck.

I pushed and shoved Inca warriors everywhere. Following my chief was a difficult task. He moved swiftly, dodging blows and deflecting many an attempt for his life. I grunted as one dead warrior fell on me. Looking at his dress, I quickly recognized him as one of our own. The warrior’s face was forever contorted in pain. I prayed silently for him before placing him down and stabbing wildly in order to push through the battle and over to where my leader was.

A big Inca bowled through the others, growling at me and uttering something in his disgusting language. I jumped on him, stabbing him once, twice, three times in the head before satisfied that the warrior was indeed dead.

I looked up from my victim to see three warriors closing in around my unprotected leader. Cursing myself for being so foolish, I pushed and shoved my way into the throng. One of the warriors fell quickly to my knife, the other to a spear I picked off the blood-soaked ground. The third and last Inca warrior was older than the others. He had short hair that looked as if it had once been long but had been chopped off. His hair was a brownish red, uncommon among our kind. And he wore a thick coat of llama skin and hair. A hood of the same make lay upon his shoulders. Dark eyes looked me up and down, searching for a weakness. I made sure not to show anything.

With a roar, the warrior threw the hood over his head and jumped at Huaman. Being too far away to save him by hand, I quickly withdrew a longbow and poised one of my poison arrows. I shot the arrow with accuracy—not meant to kill. The tip of the arrow protruded from the warrior’s ankle. He let out a savage howl and ripped out the arrow with force. But that was enough. I ran the distance and bowled him over with my shoulder. My blade sunk into his arm as the Inca made a desperate attempt to stand and escape.

“Not going anywhere…,” I chuckled in the Inca’s crude language. My blade sunk into his other arm. I watched with a wide smile as he howled in pain.

“You laggards! Stupid slips of warriors!” The Inca growled, clamping his fists. He pushed with the strength of an honorable hero, but it was not enough to throw me off. I could see his strength draining.

“Dare to kill Huaman? You die! You die to no eternity!” I withdrew my knife from his arm and lodged it in the Inca’s stomach, ripping open a gash and laughing as his entrails spilled on the ground.

“The gold is ours…,” I heard him whisper before shuddering one last time. His eyes rolled back and then the Inca was still.

This amused me. It was told among my comrades that those were always a dying Inca’s last words. I never believed them. Until now, of course.

“Come, Cuntur. The battle is almost over.” I heard my chief’s voice coming from behind me. I leaped up, ready to defend him to my very last breath.

“Yes, my leader.” I paused, scanning his body for any signs of injury. “You are not hurt, I hope? I grant you my head if you are.”

Huaman laughed silently. “I will be taking no head today. You, however, will be taking a very honorable head with you.” He nodded towards the dead Inca’s body. “I grant you that head.”

My cheeks flushed with pride as I picked up the body of my dead victim. The chief handed me my knife and, with a swift motion, I decapitated him, leaving a flap of skin from the chest and back hanging down.

The roars of our warriors rose and echoed throughout the pass. Our chief joined in, his eyes bright with the victory. I let loose a howl, pounding my fists against my chest and holding my enemy’s head high.

My brother came up to me. He was a giant among men—at least two heads taller than I. Giving me a friendly slap on the back, he put his hand on the head of the Inca and exclaimed from a mouth bubbling with laughter, “Pisco!” The other warriors around me laughed heartily. I looked around, but my chief was nowhere to be seen. Only half a dozen others were left with me. They would help me shrink the Inca’s head.

We walked solemnly across the blood-soaked pass, pressing our fists to our chests when we came across one of our own dead, scowling and swatting at the dead Incas.

Our party soon came to a fast-flowing river. This was where we would make our hut. I left the shelter to my comrades. While they made the hut and our evening meal, I slipped a headband up the Inca’s neck and through his mouth. A simple way to carry my trophy, as our chief puts it. I used my knife and cut a slit up the neck all the way to the back of the head. With that slit, I carefully peeled off the skin and hair. I set that aside and bent down on my knees. I bowed so low that my nose touched the ground. Still bowing, I took the skull and threw it into the river while chanting a praise to my gods and ancestors. May they accept this gift from me.

Our hut was ready, as was the meal. I set aside the skin and ate the stolen llama meat with vigor. This battle left us all hungry. My party of six downed everything on the hour.

My stomach content, I went back to the head. I took a needle and string and sewed the eyes closed. No spirit must escape this. Every part must be shut. I skewered the eyes with little pegs.

Now would come the long part. My comrades prepared a pot of very hot water. It was our sacred boiling pot. My brother was an apprentice of our priest, and he gave the pot the blessing of our ancestors. All was ready.

I submerged the head in the steaming water. A sensation like no other came upon me. The water was clear, yes, but it almost looked pure. Like spring water, although it had almost a holy aura about it. I paused for a moment, taking in the light popping of fire that mixed with the soft hissing of the steam to make a perfect orchestra that melted together in glorious harmony. It all seemed too unreal, so unworldly. I could feel my ancestor’s presence; I could hear their whispers of praise; I could feel their wispy fingers running through my hair.

I heard footsteps behind me, the clumsy, heavy footfalls I quickly recognized as my brother’s. “You’d better get to bed,” He grunted. “This part takes time. Trust me. We all need the rest.

I turned and smiled. “Yes, that was a harsh battle.”

My brother laughed, “Harsh? You sure do have a lot to learn about battles, Cuntur. This is what I call a glorious victory!”

My hand clenched a little. I did not want to leave the pot, the praise, the feeling of honor I so much enjoyed. “The Incas put up a good fight, that they did. I give it to those wrenches that they are very good with a spear….but no match for us. We are the Shuar.”

My brother eyed me, then he stepped up and took me roughly by the arm. “Quit stalling. We all must rest.”

As he forcefully pushed me to our shelter, I stammered, “But what about watch? Somebody must keep watch!”

“No need to. It doesn’t matter that we are close to their capital, Cuzco. Those blasted Incas won’t ever come here again if they know what’s good for them! Only a crazy elder would dare take a step in our direction.”

I sighed. That was true. And I also knew how much we all needed the rest. With each step my strength seemed to be draining. All of the sudden I realized how tired I really was. The other five in our party were bundled in woven blankets and llama fur that we plundered only weeks before. A fire burned brightly in the center of our shelter, making shadows dance in the corners. I found one such corner and sat down, stretching my legs and arms. A yawn escaped my mouth, but nobody would hear me. Everyone else was fast asleep, their thunderous snores probably echoing for miles.

In the middle of the night I awoke and raced over to the pot and withdrew the head. Fear coursed through me. I had left the head in the pot for over the two hour period. This could jeopardize the process. I looked the shrunken head over and over. After a few minutes, I came to the conclusion that nothing was wrong. My ancestors must love me very much to bestow such fortune upon me.

The head was now almost one third the regular size. The skin felt rubbery as I caressed it gently. It felt so good to be mocking the Incas by taking one’s head.

Setting the shrunken head aside, I fell back into slumber.

“Cuntur! Wake up, you lug!” My brother shoved me playfully. I jolted awake, grabbing his arm in instinct as my other hand took my knife. “Whoa! No need to, brother! We are breaking fast, and you need to be there to show us your enemy’s fine head!” He laughed, pounding me on the back twice.

I stood and rubbed my dreary eyes. “Coming….”

My comrades greeted me as I emerged from the shelter. They threw a chunk of meat in my direction, and I caught it with the skill of a seasoned brigand. “Show us the head!” Roared one, pounding his fists on his chest.

I held the head high for all to see. The pounding grew loud and quickly turned into an inferno of whoops and yells and hollers. A wide grin snaked across my face. My eyes gleamed like the sun.

After eating, my comrades went on a hunt while I stayed back to work on the head. I turned the skin head inside out and started cutting off the flesh piece by piece. My knife was sharp, but it was no match for the hard, sinewy tissue of the skilled Inca warrior. I sighed, knowing that it could possibly take days to do this.

Inch by inch the flesh came off. I burnt the flesh in the fire, another offering to my ancestors.

By the time half the head was done, my party was back with fresh game. A deer hung over my brother’s broad shoulders.

I left the head there, going over to be with my comrades as they prepared the evening meal.

At dinnertime, we all laughed and joked while stuffing our faces with the tender meat along with corn. It did not take long for our stomachs to fill and for our bodies to become weary once more. I looked to the stars and silently praised my ancestors. After that, those fiery crystals in the sky seemed to shine brighter than usual. A good omen, I took it as.

The next morning, I finished the rest of the head and turned it back inside right. I sewed the closings back together. Then I prepared hot stones. They would go inside the head and, hopefully, clean it out by burning the flesh I did not take off. They would also forever seal any other possible opening I had missed.

We ate breakfast while the stones grew hotter. I picked up the hot stones with my hands, showing everybody what a man I was. They nodded their approval and, one by one, I placed the rocks inside the head. I left them there for a few minutes before taking them out. Then I poured hot sand into the head. The smaller grains of sand could easily get into the small crevices that the big rocks could not.

After pouring out the sand, I repeated this procedure over again, just to make sure. “You can never be too careful,” My brother murmured to me that day. “This needs to be perfect. You did save the chief’s like, after all. And this is your gift.”

I nodded and continued along. By now it was almost dark. I could hear the night animals start to stir and feel the eyes watching me from every direction. This was not uncommon. Our elders always told us that the animals watched us because they were jealous of our advanced forms. But they should not be. For, in fact, we are jealous of them. We envy our animal cousins for being so close to what we are not: nature. We bend nature to our every will, not live with it as our sisters and brothers do.

I soon found myself seated in the shelter, my eyes slowly closing. Slumber came upon me like a wave of darkness.

The next morning, I quickly seared the head’s lips, closing them forever. Now no spirit can haunt me in my sleeps, on those nights where everything seems to be against you. It would paralyze the soul. This head would also bring my tribe good fortune and good crops. We needed this. Our plants were quickly dying this year and we already had to ration food.

I also wanted the magical power. Like all humans, I yearn for power. Any type of power. And magic is like that food that you taste in your mouth but can never name the taste of it. Never find what drink will satisfy you for all eternity. That is magic.

This head would let me possess the power of my victim. I will soon be able to serve my chief in every way possible.

Then next day, my party made for our camp. It was quick going, although the gruesome walk through the battlefield touched us all. The bones were picked clean and shone in the sun. The bright white color reminded me of ghosts, evil ancestors. Incas.

I was greeted as a hero by my camp. We held a feast that night in my honor. Every type of meat available was used, as was corn and the bitter cocoa bean. We seasoned our water with hot spices and drank to no end. Music and laughter echoed throughout the long, wooden house that was decorated with blood-red streamers and paintings of my heroic deeds as well as the insulted spirit of my enemy.

We celebrated long into the night. Once most were gone and safely asleep, I stepped over to my chief and held out the head to him. “For you, Huaman. The man who dared try to kill you. It is my honor to present this to you.” I kneeled before him, holding the head over mine.

My chief smiled. He laid his hands upon the head and pushed it down until it was equal to mine. I stared into the eye sockets as if the real things were actually there, looking deep into my own soul. “Keep it. It is yours. He was yours. Your prize. Now keep it.”

I beamed with pride. Taking a deep breath and pressing the forehead of my victim to my mouth, I kissed it lightly. My chief laughed and patted me on the back. “Sleep, Cuntur. We have a long march ahead of us. Home calls.”

The author's comments:
This was, surprisingly, written as a sort-of essay for History Class. Of course I recieved 100 percent on it, but what matters most is that this essay turned into a very nice piece of work.

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