1. Personae

The Photographer

A heavy and unruly creature, he habitually dresses in black or grey: for many reasons, but not least because he is living celluloid. He's probably fooling himself - at root he is a pragmatist, a state symbolised by his footwear: his boots are solid with good thick soles.

His apartment is a rat's maze of frenzied overblown house-plants, and concealed cameras. From the monstrous cine-camera in his hall cupboard (activated by the doorbell, it has contained the same reel of film for a long time - company is rare) to a cunningly devised cigarette lighter, which snaps wide shots bond-style. He is a man of few words, and two obsessions, one of which is to make pictures speak for him.

The other? Don't be impatient please; all will be revealed in good time.

Despite his retiring nature he has achieved some notoriety in the world of photography. Infrequent exhibitions and a total lack of interviews contribute to this. And no it is not clockwork that makes him tick, as one critic suggested.

Love Interest? Cold comfort.

The Tribe

The year is 1851 - the year of the Great Exhibition, optimism and palaces of glass.

The Amazon is full of magic. Travel is difficult. Jungles impassable. Rivers form the main arteries for trade, but most are so sclerotic that traffic is limited to canoes and the occasional raft, all that can survive the rapids and endless deltas of the Amazon basin. Alcoholism, the Clap and the common cold have not yet decimated the indigenous population and the ancient arts and languages are not yet ancient - for the people that live them the legends are real and spirits, rather than morals, censor their actions. They are not yet children - it will take them a few years longer to become that.

The Tribe are a semi-nomadic people, their wanderings determined by the floods that submerge large tracts of the jungle for several months of the year, when the rivers break their banks. They live in small, temporary settlements, each loose scattering of families taking up a few hundred square feet of jungle. When the rains come they will frequently abandon a whole pueblo, returning to it the following year when the Amazon has deposited a rich layer of mud on the dry shores. They range over a fairly large area – always choosing land avoided by more settled tribes.

Keenness of hand and a rich oral tradition have bequeathed to them the gentle arts of head shrinking, and the ability to brew the equally lethal concoctions curare and alcohol. There are substances in the jungle which give them visions, and on attaining adulthood they take these daily, so as not to become confused by the lie of this reality.

Their language is infinitely complex: they tattoo it on their bodies so they don't forget it, starting on their feet for common phrases in youth and scripting sacred truths and personal histories on their faces, on the lids of their eyes, and on the lobes of their ears. As the intellect begins to develop the head is shaved, and various areas of the skull marked with the traits and characteristics that arrive through maturity. Typically an elder of the tribe will be completely bald, hair replaced by an intricate tangle of points and lines. There is a paste made from tree bark, which prevents regrowth.

They exist on a diet of fish and whatever they can hunt in the jungle – almost anything big enough to eat and not actively poisonous is fair game to their blowpipes and poisoned darts, their almost invisible traps. Although sometimes the crops falter, and the staple manioc fails to yield its large and nourishing roots, hunger is not a problem in the jungle. There are more than enough fruits and nuts to sustain the few people that inhabit the region. And yet there is much to fear, good reason to ask the protection of the spirits against accidents, floods, storms, against poisons, fevers and the attacks of animals. Those lost this way are the ones that are forgotten – their heads missing from the massed ranks that bear witness to the history of the Tribe, providing the only constant record of their existence in the unsettled and ever changing jungle, ringing with the echoes of wandering spirits looking for another shell to animate. For all those who have ever been are not gone, but merely imperceptible to the living.

Suicide is less an escape from this existence than a passport to the next, and in fact an honourable way to remove the burden of one’s existence from one’s family. To avoid the fate of not existing, of never having been, those who are too old or tired or sick to continue take poison, mixed for them by the Speaker, who sends them on their journey to the next world. Their heads are preserved in the ritual manner, life reduced to an ideogram tattooed on the shrunken scalp.

After death, the body is mummified in a seated position, and suspended from the branches of trees high up to be disposed of by the elements – the cleansing depredations of birds and tree dwelling carnivores, the sudden, fierce squalls of the late afternoon.

The heads are prepared by quite another, and secret method, which preserves the sacred scrawl in perpetuity. They are hidden underground in concealed caves reminiscent of the Photographer's cupboards and drawers - all the paraphernalia of a chronicle rests with them, the wisdom of the future and the potential of the past.

The Explorer

Once he was a big man: his shoulders were as wide as two axe handles, and young ladies sighed over his dance cards. Now the years of travelling, bad food, and loneliness have given him a wizened, jaundiced look. Dirt ground into deep creases, clothes badly stained, candid, fanatical eyes piercing from beneath untrimmed brows. He has two passions: travelling and chronicling - nothing hidden here, all is transcribed into small dog-eared notebooks which set forth, detail, narrate, enumerate moment by moment the minutiae of life.

In his youth he had been a literary man: possessed of a large vocabulary, and the full complement of the fashionable philosophies. The years have conflated these into an all-embracing pseudo humanism – ennobling the savage and placing learning on a pedestal for all to admire. Reduced though he is in possessions, he has nevertheless held onto several books: the essays of Montaigne; the Confessions of Rousseau; a volume of Keats; a pocket bible. The rest of his belongings fill a number of solid trunks in the family home - sent back to London from all corners of the globe, and held in storage against his eventual return.

He is still uncertain of what has brought him to these remote and savage lands to chronicle their inhabitants. There is disillusionment with optimism – the childlike wonder in the machine, in technology, in industry, that has gripped his fellows with fever. Some disgrace, a lapse in his fortunes; anger at the profusion of inaccurate descriptions already in existence and daily multiplying. And there is wonder in the thought of describing what had never been seen; of challenging the certainty of those who believed that because they held the secrets of machines, they were infallible. For whichever of these motives you prefer, he has for the latter part of his life taken to chronicling lands distant and mysterious - arcane tongues and barbarous practices - in a self-imposed exile from civilised society.

His should have been the guardianship of many secrets. Instead all are bequeathed to vellum and paper, mixing his piss with berries when ink runs dry, making a canvas of his skin, his body.

This last is probably what saved him from extinction.

Chapter 2 »