The morning got off on the wrong foot. Or at least that’s how the orderly mind of Doctor Dusseldorff thought of it later on when she left the University. The building was old and frigid; the lofty iron shutters reluctantly let in the hazy winter light, which necessitated turning the lights on, using a hushed voice when speaking, and not looking anyone in the eye. In one corner of the lecture hall, the custodian struggled with the kerosene heater. The students attending Doctor Dusseldorff’s ethnolinguistics class were indeed speaking in muted voices without making eye contact when they heard a loud burst.
“Shit!” grumbled the custodian, squatting next to the heater.
Behind the grill that covered the burner, the blue flame of a decrepit pilot light appeared and disappeared intermittently with rackety explosions, until it abruptly went out. Everyone looked at the doctor who had just taken her seat behind the desk. The custodian stood up and said:
“It’s no use, it’s not working. I’ll go home and bring back my heater. We don’t want the native going and catching a cold on us.”
The use of the first person plural or something about the Iberian Spanish accent of the custodian prompted discreet smiles among the linguists and anthropologists. The class, Languages and Cultures of the Argentine Chaco, was due to start in a few minutes. A linguistic informant would be visiting the class: Marcelino Romero, a Toba. He was traveling from Villa Insuperable, a little over an hour away.
At ten-thirty on the dot, Romero walked in the door of the lecture hall. He was short and brawny, with a stoic face. His hair, jet black and worn long, was tucked behind his ears. He was smartly dressed in wide-leg pants and a jacket whose sleeves revealed a pair of wide, strong wrists; his feet were shod with socks and espadrilles. He mumbled a greeting directed at no one in particular and headed for his seat beside the professor’s desk. On the chalkboard hung a sign with the phrase “Of all things the measure is Man” written in Greek and Spanish. The doctor left the room. When she came back, escorted by the custodian and the department’s chief anthropologist, she had definitively assumed the demeanor of Brigitta Inge Dusseldorff, doctor and professor from the University of Mainz, specialist in Amerindian languages, whose thesis Einige linguistische Indizien des Kulturwandels in Nordost-Neuguinea (München, 1965) had greatly impressed experts around the world. Another of her works, Der Kulturwandel bei den Indianern des Gran Chaco (Südamerika) seit der Conquista-Zeit (Mainz, 1969), was enthusiastically cited by students at the University, who aspired to one day be able to dissect her profound theories. Doctor Dusseldorff was tall and bony, with enormous feet; she wore glasses and her hair very short. The class watched her, expectant; the Argentine campus was enthralled with her presence. The custodian, one step behind her and carrying the heater by the handle, didn’t even come up to her shoulders.
“Thank you,” she said to the custodian in perfect Spanish. “You may be excused.”
The students settled into their seats, as did the anthropologist. The class began almost right on time.
“Last class,” said the doctor, who liked to get straight to the point, “we started to cover the paradigms related to hunting and fishing, weapons and tools, correct?”
With the exception of Romero, everyone in the room nodded their head.
“Well, today we won’t use tape recordings,” said the doctor. “We’re going to pick up where we left off with the informant himself, beginning with the realm of fishing. If you please, Mister Marcelino, how do you say, ‘to fish?’”
The Toba looked at them, then looked stoically at the wall and said:
“Very good. So this is ‘to fish.’” The doctor wrote it on the board.
The Toba shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I am going to fish.”
“Ah, very well, the first person singular of the verb. Therefore, you are going to fish,” she pointed at the board, but the Toba didn’t say a thing. “Alright, but how do you say just ‘to fish?’”
“Sokoenagan,” said the Toba.
The professor held the chalk suspended in the air.
“Let’s try the third person. How do we say, ‘he fishes?’”
“Niemayé-rokoenagan,” said the Toba.
“Perfect,” proclaimed the doctor, and she proceeded to expound upon the morphophonological considerations.
The class progressed very slowly over the next twenty minutes.
“In summary,” the professor said, finally, “to fish: sokoenagan; I fish: sokoenagan; you fish: aratá-sokoenagan; he fishes: niemayé-rokoenagan. Notice the distinctive value of the glottal stop in…”
The Toba shook his head, letting on that the summary was incorrect.
“What?” exclaimed the doctor, furrowing her brow.
“He’s sitting down, he hasn’t gone yet,” said Romero.
There was a brief silence.
“An ongoing tense, then, or a special element in the conjugation,” the doctor addressed the class. “Explain your meaning,” she said sternly to the Toba. For a moment it seemed like she was going to add, “sir,” but she didn’t.
“He’s sitting down, he hasn’t gone out to fish yet. He’s thinking,” said the Toba, “he’s thinking about going to fish. I’m seeing it up close.”
Students and professors shifted in their seats. The informant didn’t seem to be making things very easy. One of the students interjected with an obvious desire to agree with Doctor Dusseldorff. She was the most advanced student in the class. She had been given the chance to speak privately with the doctor and the possibility of a scholarship had been mentioned; potentially even a trip to Germany.
“Could it be, Doctor, perhaps a subsystem related to the presence/absence of the object in question?”
“I don’t think that’s the case,” the doctor replied coolly.
The anthropologist, young, pale, donning a suit, scarf, and field experience, spoke up:
“If you’d allow me, Doctor.” He was a man who knew how to deal with Indians. “What do you mean when you say that you’re seeing it up close, Marcelino?” The anthropologist addressed the Toba by his first name without the honorific Mister, even though he had to be twenty years his junior.
The doctor bowed her head in approval of his decisive, masculine intervention.
“If I don’t see it, I say it a different way,” said Marcelino Romero. And he added, “But he’s not fishing; he’s going to go fishing.”
The room let out a collective sigh of relief. The anthropologist was explaining a few points to the female students seated around him. He was stylishly smoking a cigarette. He knew all the latest theoretical trends down to the last detail. Privately, he was nostalgic for the classical era of anthropology, and he dreamed of emulating one of those refined, erudite English dandies who could embed themselves in the deepest and most savage parts of the jungle or desert, never losing their impeccable style, all in the name of science. He himself had already spent time in the untamed mountains of El Impenetrable. This granted him an unspoken superior position over the doctor, who had only worked with artificial languages, statistics, and computers. Murmurs circulated about the lecture hall.
“Very good, Marcelino,” said the anthropologist, offering his affability as a reward.
The class went on. Romero remained seated, unmoving; his posture was straight, and his back didn’t touch the chair.
“Let’s move on to hunting,” said the doctor, adjusting her eyeglasses.
The anthropologist sensed that the floor was his once again.
“You used to go hunting with your grandfather, didn’t you, Marcelino?”
“Yes,” said the Toba.
“Was there any type of ritual…” the anthropologist stammered and corrected himself, “I mean, any type of gathering or ceremony before going out to hunt? What did your grandfather used to say about it?”
“No,” said Romero, looking vaguely at his surroundings.
Once again, a pronounced sense of unease was felt in the room. The doctor intervened. She expressed her interest in restricting their questions to terminology related to hunting. The anthropologist was in complete agreement. But before the doctor could ask her first question, the Toba unexpectedly began to speak. He spoke in a low voice, never lifting his gaze from the floor. He explained how the hunter could get sick if the hunted animal cursed him. He had gotten sick this way, from an animal’s curse, when he was a boy. The city was like the jungle, he said. Out there you have to watch out for animals; here you have to watch out for people. He recalled when his father and grandfather used to take him out hunting. They had taught him how to hunt. But as the years went on, he had wanted to come here. To leave the Chaco, where you could feel the ground beneath your feet, and come here, because he had gotten into an argument with the foreman, who was Paraguayan and only gave work to Paraguayans. Not to Toba brothers, not to Argentines.
The last word sounded strange as it reverberated in the lecture hall, despite having been uttered in a low voice. Those present looked at the Toba as if he had just said something out of place, or as if they had started to discover a quality in him that they hadn’t noticed before, an unexpected attribute. A striking observation floated in the air: this indigenous person was Argentine.
“One Sunday I went to go talk to him,” continued the Toba. There was no shift in his body language and he continued to gaze at the floor. “And I got into an argument with him. We would work all week, there was no Sunday for us.”
Studying her notebook, the doctor interrupted him:
“I think we are straying off topic. This is not about personal history, it’s about cultural reconstruction.” She looked at the anthropologist, who once again came to her aid.
“That’s fine, Marcelino,” offered the anthropologist with a touch of warning in his tone. He had field experience, he had been in El Impenetrable, and he knew how to talk to Indians. “That’s very good.” Now he was speaking as if to a child. “But we want you to tell us about when you would go hunting; what weapons you used, what they were called. Do you remember? You were eighteen when you came here from the Chaco.”
“Yes, I came here,” said the Toba. “I didn’t want to go through transculturation.” As if collectively spurred on by a single force of momentum, every head bent down to take note of this word so accurately assimilated by the Toba. “I went away because I argued with the foreman. It was raining and my grandfather and I had been working all day that Sunday. My grandfather and I, along with the others, had been loading the boxcars with packages, even though it was raining. So I argued with him and I came to the city, to the Hotel de Inmigrantes; but the room was so small at the shelter, everything was so small. You want to see nature, but you can’t. It’s nothing but city, everywhere you look.”
The class was frozen in suspense. The doctor, impatient, looked at the Toba and said with an authoritarian tone:
“Let’s continue with tools and weapons, but first let’s try a couple of words to get back into the phonetics.” She looked at the Toba once again. “How do you say ‘fish?’”
Romero sighed and, for the first time, he leaned back in the chair; then he put his hands in the pockets of his pants and crossed one leg over the other. The gesture didn’t seem appropriate for the setting of the class. He looked straight at the doctor.
“Naiaq,” he said.
“Good. Then we can establish: sokoenagan naiaq: I catch a fish. Note that there are two nasal vowels in contact,” the doctor pointed out, with something that approximated enthusiasm, “which produces…”
“If the fish is there and I see it, yes,” the Toba interrupted, “but if not, no.” Everyone looked at him. “There’s another way to say it,” concluded the Toba, finally.
“Which is?” asked Doctor Dusseldorff, her eyes narrowing behind her enormous eyeglasses.
“Lacheogé-mnaiaq-ñiemayé-dokoeratak,” said the Toba.
Some of those present thought they saw the shadow of a smile in his staid expression, but his eyes were serious and focused.
“It seems that the informant is not quite up for the linguistic component today. If you’d like, Professor, we can continue with tools and weapons,” said the doctor, emphasizing the hard consonants as she spoke.
The entire class relaxed. It was for the best. Everyone could tell that the doctor was slightly annoyed. When that happened, her native language came to the surface. The informant must cooperate, if not it was impossible to properly catalog the phonetics.
“A much-needed break, Doctor?” said the anthropologist, smiling.
Everyone laughed. One of the female students offered to bring coffee. The anthropologist and the doctor huddled in a corner, speaking in low voices. Two students approached the Toba, who was still sitting in his chair.
“Just get to the point, Marcelino, don’t get off track or this is going to take all day.”
They offered him a cigarette and the Toba accepted, but he didn’t get up from the chair. Every so often, he quickly blinked, the only thing that shifted in his expression.
“So, you don’t like the city,” said one of the students, “but at least here you can work and support your family, right, Marcelino? You’re doing better here than in the Chaco.”
Romero nodded his head. He was staring at the lit end of the cigarette.
“But when you want to see nature, all you see is city.”
Ten minutes later, the anthropologist clapped his hands together with academic self-assurance.
“Let’s continue,” he said.
As the students found their places, he left the room in the direction of the archaeology department. When he came back, he had two bows, several arrows, three spears of different sizes and a lasso made of plant fibers with complicated knots at either end.
“Alright, Marcelino,” the anthropologist placed himself in front of the Toba. “Do you recognize these items, these weapons…?” He displayed one of the bows and the arrows in front of the Toba. Still seated, the Toba looked at the objects. He lifted one hand and touched the bow with the tips of his fingers. He lowered his hand.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes I do.”
“Do any of them stand out to you?” the anthropologist continued.
The Toba took one of the arrows, the smallest one, without feathers at the end.
“This is an arrow for fishing.”
“Perfect. Do you use it with this bow? Last class you said that your grandfather had all of these things stored at his house.”
Suddenly, the Toba got up and stood over the anthropologist, surprising everyone, first and foremost the anthropologist, who stepped back abruptly. The Toba spoke to him in a low voice.
“Of course, Marcelino,” the anthropologist attempted to laugh, “of course.”
“Marcelino has asked if he can take off his jacket, so as to be more comfortable handling the bow,” he informed the class.
A few isolated, obligatory laughs were heard. The doctor, completely serious, wrote something down in her notebook. The Toba carefully draped his jacket over the back of the chair. Then he picked up the bow. In the hands of the Toba, the bow ceased to be a museum artifact and came back to life. He ran his broad, dark-skinned hands over it, part by part. There was nothing unnatural in his handling of the object. He had the air about him of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing. With one hand he held the bow and with the other he picked up the arrows.
“This is for hunting,” he said to no one in particular.
Paradoxically, the Toba looked even more brawny without the jacket. His neck and shoulders were powerful. As he leaned over to get a closer look at the objects, a vein was visible that extended from the middle of his forehead to his hairline. Everyone looked at him with curiosity. He didn’t seem like the same man who a few minutes ago had been passively answering the doctor’s questions.
“And this one is for battle.” As he uttered the words, the Toba looked at the anthropologist. The arrow that he was holding was the largest one, with a fletching of colorful feathers at the end. “My grandfather used to say that Peritnalik sent the brothers into battle,” he looked again at the anthropologist and then at the rest of the room. Before the anthropologist could speak, he said, “Peritnalik, the Great Father, the one who sends the spirits to the lands of the Toba.”
Some were taking notes. The majority had their eyes fixed anxiously on the Toba. It wasn’t that he was doing anything inappropriate, but there was something about the way he was standing and holding the bow that had crossed the boundaries of an academic class. The anthropologist had taken a seat near the door, to the side of the Toba, and he was observing him. He tried to feign objective interest, but it was obvious that he was flustered and uncomfortable.
With surprising skill, the Toba pulled the loose bowstring taught and tied it to the end of the bow. All eyes were glued to his hands. Mild concern crept across the faces. No one really knew this Indian that well. They had come across him by chance, and he seemed particularly suited to illustrate Doctor Dusseldorff’s classes. As if getting the class back on track, the anthropologist said:
“How do you say ‘arrow,’ Marcelino?”
The Toba lifted his head abruptly.
“Hichqená,” he said.
“We can draw a comparison to the Matacoan terminology that…”
The anthropologist had to stop mid-sentence. The Toba, with his legs parted and firmly planted, had drawn the bow as if to test it. A lock of his thick, jet black hair—an Asian phenotypic feature, thought the anthropologist—had slid out from behind his ear and fallen across his face. His dark-skinned hand looked massive, wrapped around the wood. An energy undetected up until that point—in previous classes the Toba had always respectfully stayed in his chair—emanated from his body, establishing a reciprocal force between his arm and the tension in the bowstring, a masculine strength that especially bothered Doctor Dusseldorff, who was accustomed to the asexual hierarchies of science. With a guttural voice, the Toba said:
“Kal’lok.” And he repeated it more loudly, “Kal’lok.”
No one was taking notes anymore. With an agility that put everyone on edge, the Toba bent down and picked up an arrow leaning against the chair, the longest one, the one for battle, with the feather fletching. The doctor had left her notebook on the desk. The anthropologist got up from his seat. He was a bit pale.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” he started to say.
“Ena! Ena! Peritnalik!” the Toba’s deep voice reverberated between the walls.
Several notebooks fell to the ground. The Toba had fit the arrow against the bowstring and drawn it back as far as possible. His profile faced the class, one arm extended, the other elbow lifted. In that stance it was quite easy to imagine his bare chest like a sculpture in relief. The length of the arrow took up the exact amount of space formed by the drawn bow. The tip of the arrowhead was at eye level with the anthropologist. The doctor’s mouth was agape.
“Hanak ená ña’alwá ekorapigem ramayé mnorék, ramayé lacheogé, ramayé pé habiák…” the Toba said in a hoarse murmur.
He stood motionless. His torso slowly rotated, tracing a semicircle that encompassed the entire class. Some heads began to duck behind the backs of those seated in front of them; others knelt down; more notebooks fell to the ground. At the back of the room, a girl stood up.
“Kal’lok,” said the Toba.
The silence was heavy as bricks.
The Toba slowly lowered his arms and released the bowstring. He gingerly removed the arrow and placed it alongside the others. He leaned the bow against the back of the chair. He removed his jacket and draped it over one of his forearms.
Little by little, signs of life returned to the lecture hall. Throats were cleared, students bent down to look for their notebooks on the floor, a few coughs were heard here and there. The anthropologist, still tense, lit a cigarette and approached the Toba.
“Perfect, Marcelino, perfect,” he said.
This pleasantry restored the ability to speak to everyone present. Students tried to figure out who had taken notes. No one knew if the doctor’s tape recorder had been on. Word spread throughout the room that the words uttered by the Toba had been a prayer to Peritnalik. Something along the lines of “…ruler of fire, ruler of the night and of the jungle…” and something else after that, but no one could be sure.
Everyone got up and got ready to leave. Some whispered to the person sitting next to them. Quickly, money was pooled together to pay Marcelino Romero for his collaboration. One of the students handed it to him, barely able to look him in the face. The Toba slowly put on his jacket. Without formality, he took the payment and stowed it in his pocket.
The anthropologist and Doctor Dusseldorff left immediately. The class had not been satisfactory. They considered, academically, the possibility of finding another linguistic informant. Perhaps a Mataco, but someone more willing to cooperate. A willing disposition was fundamental to their scientific objectives.
Translated by Emily Hunsberger
Originally published as “El dueño del fuego,” from the book En el invierno de las ciudades, in Narrativa breve, Alfaguara, 2003.
Emily Hunsberger is a bilingual writer, translator, and podcast producer. She has published original poetry, reporting, criticism, and research in English and Spanish in Bello Collective, Spanglish Voces, and Estudios del Observatorio / Observatorio Studies. She translates fiction, nonfiction, and poetry into English, with work featured in Spanglish Voces, Anfibias Literarias, Orden de Traslado, and Translators Aloud and forthcoming in The Southern Review. Since 2017, Emily has produced Tertulia, an independent podcast en español that tells stories about how Spanish is used by real people in the US to build community, transmit culture, reclaim identity, and exercise rights. She has also worked in the fields of community-based economic development, international sustainable development, education, and immigrant rights.