Chapter 18: Saturday, Nov. 11

In which Norman watches the video sent by Corny Chard. Since when do cooking shows feature chain saws?

By Alfred Alcorn
Published August 8, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

My quandary regarding the Corny Chard tape is worse than ever. I came in this afternoon with the express purpose of taking the tape to the Twitchell Room, putting it in the VCR, turning it on, and watching it. Which, indeed, is what I did. To a point.

But not without stalling around for a while, I have to admit. I joined the public for a stroll through the Diorama of Paleolithic Life in Neanderthal Hall, the space on the ground floor that undercuts the galleries in the atrium above. What a superb job young Edwards, our Director of Exhibits, and Thad Pilty have done. Many of the sensitive issues were sorted out finally. The individual Neanderthals look racially homogenous; women are shown in positions of respect and authority; the children are all engaged in environmentally sound forms of play; all the hides and furs are clearly labeled as synthetic. (There is a courtship ritual of sorts that to me looks like some kind of lowlife making a pass at a woman in a bar, but all can't be perfect.)

How simple things must have been back then. Food, clothing, mating, and shelter. Although, I'm sure, back in some cave or other, on some ledge near where the rock face was being used as a canvas, someone had started a collection of discarded, nicely carved spear heads and bear claw jewelry, just for display. And someone had to curate it.

But to the matter at hand. I cannot be too hard on myself. I finally left the public area, let myself into the Twitchell Room, found the right niche for the tape, inserted it, turned it on, and watched.

As expected, the first few minutes of the tape were scarcely exceptional: shots of a dense jungle trail and smallish natives naked except for thongs around their waists and under their buttocks carrying what appeared to be blowguns and bows with great long arrows. The camera bobs a bit even in clear stretches, throwing out of sync the rhythmic walking movements of the all but naked haunches of the natives up ahead. It is clear that for much of the time they are climbing a fairly steep incline.

They stop finally at a small clearing where, through a break in the dense canopy, the camera scans over a great, green, riverine forest. Corny's voice comes over from the side in a breathlessness reminiscent of that Englishman who narrates nature programs. "Down below to the left you can see where they have clear cut several hundred hectares, destroying habitat for both man and nature."

The picture jostles, goes blank. Then we see Corny standing on a log, slouch hat pulled over his balding cropped pate, face blistered by the sun, stance defiant, every inch the fearless anthropologist of yore. "A lot of the tribespeople are noticeably hostile to outsiders now. I had difficulty recruiting what porters and guides I have with me here. As you can see ahead, even getting into Yomamas territory is difficult. There are no permanent trails, and we will now have to cut our way with machetes through dense vegetation that reasserts itself very quickly.

"Ahead of us, in a hidden upland valley, is the sacred village of the Yomamas, where no outsider has been before, not even Ferdie, who's been everywhere around these parts. Melvin Bricklesby made it as far as our base camp in 1957, but turned back when his porters wouldn't go any farther. His account of Osunki, the anthropophagic ritual of the Yomamas, is, as he freely admits, based largely on hearsay. And now our escorts, from one of the small tribes along the tributary, refuse to go much farther. They've been getting more and more edgy. They've been making jokes, pointing at each other, rubbing their stomachs and laughing.

"Ferdie yesterday made contact with a member of the tribe and he tells me that the headman has agreed to let me witness and videotape Osunki in exchange, believe it or not, for the video camera taking this footage. An important Yomama I met down at the base camp thought it sheer magic that we could capture the living world in this box. Well, I'm not about to say no to a deal like that. So, at the risk of pomposity, let me say I am setting forth to record the conscience of my fellow humans, to refute once and for all the cannibalism deniers, that legion of the misguided who think the human species too good for the natural behavior of which it is capable.

"Whew. We've been climbing along this trail now for several hours and we've only now come to the rough part. I have never been in an area so remote in all my life."

For a while there is no voice-over, only the sound of birds in the canopy, Corny's heavy breathing, and the slash of machetes as they cut their way through the dense understory of the jungle. The screen goes blank. When it comes back on it's obviously some time later. Nothing seems to have changed. They are still moving slowly upward, but it is Corny himself hacking away at the vegetation.

The screen goes blank again. But when the picture returns, it shows them in a large, nearly paradisical setting, a green clearing spaced with conical grass huts with steep, heavily wooded hills all around.

Corny, his voice with a distinct edge of excitement, his breathing strained, is whispering, "We have arrived at Yama-beri, the sacred village of the Yomamas. As you can see, it is not exceptional from the other villages we have seen in this region. What's different are these elaborately carved spit poles called issingi, yes, right Ferdie, that's what the Yomama call them." The camera closes in on two forked poles embedded in the ground, the tips of which had been worked into knob shapes suggestively phallic. The camera shows several of these spaced around a large cleared space at one end of the village. There, lots of natives mill around, virtually naked from what I could see. "This is the issingi," Corny continues, directing the camera at a gallows-like affair with two stout logs buried in the ground and a crossbar lashed to the top of it with rope woven from the inner bark of trees.

A drumroll of sorts sounds from a hollow log beaten with sticks. The camera swings around to catch an imposing older man in loincloth and monkey skins, his face elaborately painted, as he approaches. Accompanying him are three nearly naked women, one quite heavy, and a fierce looking younger man, who shakes a gourd.

Off-camera, in a near whisper, Corny can be heard saying, "Here comes the chief and his three wives. The young man is his first son by his first wife."

The chief stops and, after an elaborate bow, makes a long speech as his son shakes the rattle all around Corny's person. There is a sudden commotion on the screen. When the picture came back on, Corny is being held and his limbs bound by several muscular-looking natives to the four corners of the gallows-like affair he mentioned earlier. He is looking into the camera, somewhat breathless, and saying, "Keep the tape rolling, Ferdie. I don't know what they're going to do, but let's not miss any of it."

Corny shows, surprisingly, little obvious fear, rather a kind of exhilaration. He says, wincing as they strip off his clothes and bind him with what look like pieces of grass rope, "If being killed and eaten by a lion could be called the ultimate wildlife experience, I suppose that being killed and eaten by cannibals is an anthropologist's ultimate contribution to research. It appears that I am no longer merely the observer, but have become the observed. Keep the camera steady, Ferdie."

The screen went blank for a moment. I fervently hoped it was the end of it. Then Corny appears again. One native is holding a slender hollow tube, perhaps five feet long, up to one of Corny's nostrils, while another blows something through from the other end. Corny retches, but bends his head down for another dose of whatever it is they're blowing up his nose. Finally, still retching but smiling, Corny is again talking into the camera, sounding even more like that breathless Englishman.

"That was tremendous, probably one of a class of hallucinogens used in these parts to induce trances. I should shortly be seeing visions. I am terrified. But I am also exalted. I only regret that I am not able to take notes, except verbally. My fervent hope is that whatever happens, researchers will study this tape and do papers on it. I am scared but excited. Both emotions, no doubt, will affect my objectivity as I am reduced in anthropological terms to the ultimate subjectivity. Ferdie, pan to the right for a moment."

The camera pans to the right, and Corny can be heard in a voice-over. "There are the sacred cooking spits on which specific parts of the victim are slow cooked, according to Bricklesby's account. He relates that the body parts are consumed according to rank. The chief, seated over to the left, close on him, Ferdie, will get my heart. My genitals will go to his oldest son by his first wife. They will be flame-broiled and eaten, after which he will copulate publicly with a virgin who has had less than seven menses. I'm quoting what I remember of Bricklesby's report. I may get to witness the event depending on what they start on first. If Bricklesby has it right, my liver will go to the portly woman to the right of the chief. His first wife. The brain, strangely enough, is considered refuse and discarded. Perhaps it's an example of primitive dietary laws. Oh, my God, here comes the chief and all his retinue. Ferdie, make sure you get this all down."

Ferdie pans back, showing a group of the natives coming over to kneel in front of Corny. They make placatory, almost devotional sounds. A figure in mask and loincloth shakes ashes over Corny's head. "This is the purification ceremony. Those are the ashes, Bricklesby tells us, of the last celebrant as they call the victim. Notice that there is no animosity here. They consider it a great honor. I am about to become a part of the tribe. The Yomama word for initiation is very close to the one used for this ceremony. Ferdie! Ferdie! It's about to start ..."

A figure in an elaborate headdress dances to the pounding log drum and appears in front of Corny, who is spread naked like the universal human figure by Leonardo. "Ferdie, keep the camera on the shaman in the cockade of red macaw feathers. Oh, God, I think he's doing the cleansing dance right now."

The camera stays on the man in the brilliant headdress and painted, near-naked torso dancing around and bending over an object on the ground. As Corny again comes into view a harsh, familiar sound is heard off-camera. Corny gasps. "Oh, God. That's a chain saw. Bricklesby said nothing about that. It's not in the tradition. Oh, God. Or am I hallucinating?"

Poor Corny is not hallucinating. The shaman figure comes into view holding what looks like an old chain saw. It's sputtering and emitting great clouds of blue smoke as the figure approaches Corny.

At which point I pressed the off button. I simply could not watch any more of it.

Am I a coward? Perhaps. But as ambivalent as I may feel about Corny sometimes, he is still a member of the Museum community. He is still one of us. And I dread, absolutely dread, having to watch him being sacrificed on the altar of anthropological research. More than that, I dread having to go to Jocelyn and explain to her what has happened to her husband.

Alfred Alcorn

Alfred Alcorn, formerly a journalist at the Boston Herald and CBS, is also the former director of the travel program at Harvard's Museum of Natural History. In addition to "The Love Potion Murders (in the Museum of Man)," he is the author of two previous novels, "The Pull of the Earth" (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) and "Murder in the Museum of Man" (Zoland Books, 1997). He lives in Belmont, Mass.

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