Disclaimer: the practice described in this Entry has been deemed illegal in most human societies. The BBC cannot accept liability for consequences that may ensue from the pursuit of the activities described herein.
Aguaruna Shuare frowned, and set the newspaper aside. The stories
within it filled him with disquiet. The habits of modern-day tribes, and
even those of their elders, were becoming ever more sacrilegious.
He was still pondering the matter when the whirring from the kitchen
ceased, and one of his younger wives carried in the fresh jug of juice.
She set it down on the glass table-top, and stroked his braided hair. Her eyes searched the surface for the customary offering, and settled on the TV remote. After pressing it to her breast, she replaced it carefully and waited patiently for her Provider to speak.
She waited for some time, because he was thinking. He was thinking of
shamen in this very valley who nowadays declared opposition to the ritual sacrifice of prisoners. He was thinking of the medicine men who refused to concoct potions for the purpose of draining an enemy's physical strength.
He dispelled these troubling thoughts, for a while at least. 'Any new
pleadings?', he asked, brushing the toast-crumbs from his beaded apron.
'There is a gentleman called Huamhura', replied the wife, deferently
avoiding his eyes. 'Achuan has already bathed him. He is waiting outside.'
'Then clear these things away and show him in.'
Huamhura Shuare turned out to be a Jivaro half-blood, which was pretty much what Aguaruna had expected. The suit was Western, though the necktie was of snakeskin. The gold adornment was decidedly understated. The tattoo on the forehead revealed that its bearer had bought himself out of slavery, and that too was common enough these days.
The story he told was similarly typical. The ritual was now seldom
carried out on captives, of course, except for those taken in war. This
was instead a familiar example of an accidental death in the community. A neighbour had suffered cardiac arrest during a dispute over a conifer
'The dead one comes from a tribe of casket-buriers', said Huamhura,
staring glumly into his glass of juice. 'I had to treat with his
first-born, and she was a female', he choked. 'I didn't know where to put myself. I could hardly offer a daughter in penance.'
Aguaruna smiled inwardly. 'And did this female accept the rite? That is the main thing.'
The other nodded. 'She demanded a great deal of money, though.'
The shaman coughed. 'The payment does not matter to me, and nor does it concern the ancestors', he declared, in a tone of slight admonishment. 'The main thing is that you may take the Tsantsa. Is that understood?'
'Yes, replied Huamhura, with obvious embarrassment. 'Except she
insisted that it be returned to the casket afterwards, with the rest of
his remains. That will be all right, won't it?'
'That is entirely within your gift. For the purposes of the ritual, and for your own absolution from torment, it is quite acceptable. As I'm sure you'll realise, surrender of the Tsantsa will prevent any exercising of mind-control over your adversary's progeny, but that is all.'
It turned out that the corpse was already on the premises, stretched
out in the back of Huamhura's Volvo. The authorities at the hospital had
thoughtfully attached a sheaf of forms. Aguaruna Shuare perused them with practised disdain, signed a couple, and gave his usual speech about this society becoming a strange mix of the spiritual and the secular. Within minutes, the departed was prostrate on the slab in the Chamber of
Cleansing, and his two animate companions were dressed in linen shifts,
surgical masks and latex gloves.
'In our forebears' times, you'd have had to stay out of sight of the
tribe while this ritual was enacted', said Aguaruna, in a matter-of-fact
voice. He liberally coated the face of the corpse with the contents of an aerosol can. 'The whole thing used to take weeks. Nowadays we can do it in under two hours if we choose to, and your forfeit is to wield the
instruments. Are you going to be OK?'
The other man looked unsure, but nodded anyway. The shaman started the electric saw, and neatly decapitated the cadaver.
The flensing proceeded fairly easily. The four days that had elapsed
since death were just about ideal, and the body had not been over-chilled. Huamhura was also more purposeful and less squeamish than some, though he gagged a couple of times. The first time was as he split apart the incision at the back of the head, which had been made from neck to crown. The second time was as he peeled off the face. That part, Aguaruna had to admit, took a lot of getting used to. He had spared his visitor the task of scooping out the eyes, since few laymen could avoid looking into them anyway, and that invited possession by the dead man's soul.
'I've put all the leftover parts into this basin', Aguaruna declared.
'Skull, jawbone, tongue, eyes and brain, mainly. Most of the teeth and
what we can collect of the spilled fluids too. Unless you have other
ideas, I'm going to incinerate the lot, and return the ashes to the dead
man's family. Their ritual, of course, not ours. Is that OK?'
The look of confusion on his companion's face demanded further explanation. 'Some people insist on the ancient rite of strewing the offal in the river', continued the shaman. 'It assuages the wrath of the
Anaconda God, but I don't think you need to worry about snakes as long as you're domiciled in Henley-on-Thames.'
Huamhura made a decent job of turning the face inside out, and scraping off the fatty tissue with the spatula. He spat into the simmering pot that Aguaruna had readied, to ensure that some of himself was incorporated into the Tsantsa. Aguaruna approved. Not everyone managed to produce saliva at this point. The flayed head was carefully laid into the steaming infusion, as the shaman attended to the settings of the thermostat and electronic timers.
'It'll take half an hour', said Aguaruna. 'That's the hard part done,
but don't lose your disgust just yet. I need you to recite some incantations, and I want to hear your contrition.'
'You see now what the aerosol was for?' The shaman presented the matrix of steel pins to the latex impression of the dead man's face. 'The computer now has a likeness of the contours. This next part is the clever bit. It was purposed-designed by a Peruvian engineer about twenty years ago. There are fewer than two hundred of these machines in the world.'
The bag of skin had shrunk to about half of its original size, and had taken on an angry red colouration. The hair, of course, remained
unchanged, and now dominated the other features in a profuse mane. Aguaruna slipped the neck-hole over a gleaming metal ball, bristling with tiny buttons.
'Very neat needlework, by the way. Well done.' The shaman inspected the stitches which now closed the eyelids and mouth. 'This next part used to be done by filling the head with roasted pebbles or sand. We can do it a lot better using these heated pegs. They'll retract as the skin tightens, but they'll adjust to retain the original shape of the face.' He produced a pair of plastic rods, long and curving, and inserted one into each nostril. 'These are another modern innovation. Without them, it's hit and miss what happens to the nose.'
'What about the ears?', asked Huamhura, now becoming genuinely
interested. 'They always stay oversize', replied the other. 'Once the rest is done, we trim them.'
The afternoon sun was low in the sky by the time that Achuan brought
them tea. Huamhura sat with the Tsantsa in his lap, carefully massaging
the ointment into its leathery skin. It was now about the size of a
clenched fist, and the neck was sewn closed with the same fine synthetic
thread that had been used for the other apertures. The void within was
stuffed with kapok. The brow had been adorned in the modern manner, with
an alternating pattern of embedded teeth and rivets from the adversary's
'It's just ordinary skin cream; the kind your wives use', said
Aguaruna. 'Best thing for the heads. The traditional ones are nearly black and hard as iron, and the closures used to be stitched with coarse
vegetable fibre. These look and feel a lot better, with a near-normal skin tone and a suede-like texture. It's quite attractive, isn't it? One of the best I've seen by a first-timer.'
'Do many people get to do it more than once, then?'
'Military guys, mainly. And shamen, of course.'
Huamhura was beginning to quite regret the promised return of his
creation. He knew that another could be made to the now-programmed
pattern, and that unclaimed corpses could be purchased from the mortuary
for just this purpose. But it wouldn't be the same.
'Are you sure that his spirit can never return to taunt me', he said
eventually, 'even if I give this back?'
'Quite sure', replied Aguaruna Shaure, and there was a decisiveness
about his tone. 'And you have to give it back. We must respect other
'There are some pretty strange practices out there, though', continued Huamhura, trying to find a loophole. 'I don't feel comfortable with them myself.'
The shaman shrugged. 'Let me let you into a secret', he said. 'I go to an acupuncturist. And he's circumcised. Then there's the guy at the club who wants his daughters to marry as virgins, but that doesn't stop me playing a round of golf with him.'
Huamhura Shaure climbed into the Volvo, and glanced wistfully into the rear-view mirror from which a shrunken head would probably never hang. The dutiful junior wife in the back seat avoided his gaze, remaining in the pose that she had occupied for the last five hours.
'You know I said I wasn't looking forward to meeting a priest?' he
asked, absently. There was the slightest nod of acknowledgement behind
him, in case the question was directed at her.
Huamhura sighed, and intoned a brief prayer of atonement to the
spirits. Then he turned the key, and with a crunch of gravel he pulled off the shaman's driveway.