'I originally wrote this story in the manner of an old anthropologist's black-and-white filmreel, the kind that gets shown to students as evidence of "how the natives lived", but are really entirely artificial because everyone knows they're on camera. I saw so many of those films in college, and I tried to capture the flickering film, the jumping cuts, and the crackly or non-existent sound that was so typical of them. (Modern ethnography isn't so fond of "recording the natives" in the same way.) This piece is almost entirely visual, with references to sound, thought, and interpretation kept to a minimum.' JC
An Ethnographer's Record by Johann Carlisle
Survey the picture, flickering on faded celluloid: a grainy room in a simple shack, a cold country in the closing years of the Tsarist empire. The walls are bare wood, stained black with old smoke, as scarred and scratched as the film. The ceiling is only as high as it needs to be, keeping down the volume of air to be heated. There are no windows, and the door is covered with an old but well-tanned sheep-hide blanket to keep out the draft - although the door is open now, and the fat-burning lamp on the sturdy dining table is blinking blindly in the icy, harsh air.

An audience of villagers is clustered in the doorway and outside the hut, but the action is focused on a tense stand-off between three characters inside the house. An ill-shaven white man stands penned in one corner, shivering with tension and with cold, for he is not wearing enough to be outdoors in this part of the world. He has an old military-issue Russian flintlock rifle in his hands, just steady enough to keep his adversary at bay.

Also penned in a corner nearby, where she cannot flee without passing the tip of the gun, is a dark-skinned village woman with a lurid, dirty-looking bruise blossoming on one cheek and her cow-hide overcoat clutched desperately around her rather than worn. She is cowering, shaking, too frightened even to whimper.

The third protagonist of this impossible scene is a broad-shouldered villager with a thick black moustache, dark-veined face incandescent with fury, and a cruelly glinting meat cleaver hefted in his right hand. He is held at bay only - and barely - by the rifle pointed at his chest, too close to miss.

No one is looking at the camera.

A dozen villagers crowd outside the door, where three or four of them can see inside the room, but daren't enter. Two young man are restraining a second white man who stands outside, struggling and shouting challenges or warnings. His voice does not survive onto the recording. In any case his is not the language spoken by the peasants of this southern province, and he is ignored.

Nobody seems to be doing anything, or to know what to do, to break the impasse in the room. Only the two white men and the angry villager with the cleaver show any signs of impatience. The others seem to be waiting for something.

The struggling Russian outside falls still as the newcomer appears, awed as are the villagers around him by the palpable aura of confidence and authority. The new man is as dusky as all the people of this province, but taller than most, and almost abnormally thin. His eyes are liquid and black as pools in the lamplight; his hair is long and straight, and he wears no hat. His coat is of undyed wool, and hangs almost to the ground, the hem dark with mud.

The onlookers part as this man enters the hut without a word, stand back to give him plenty of room. He surveys the scene for a few seconds. Only the white man with the rifle and the flush-faced peasant with the cleaver seem uncowed by his appearance.

His lips move gently, as he speaks - perhaps a name - in a soft voice. We hear nothing, but it is clear that he somehow commands more attention with that one word than everyone else together with their shouting, gasping, and struggling.

The peasant looks around briefly, reluctantly, unwilling to take his eyes from the man with the gun. The newcomer's unwavering eyes convince him, however, and he slowly backs out of the hut, the cleaver trembling in his hand, his face still shaded with fury. The white man never takes his eyes or the line of the rifle from him until he is out of sight.

The tall man then looks at the woman in the corner, nods to her. She risks a glance at the man with the gun, then flees from the room in a sudden blur of movement. The two men are alone with the camera, and only a few shadows outside can be seen through the open doorway. The film jumps a second or two, bubbles and bleaches a little down the left hand side.

The rifle wavers slightly in the white man's hand, but settles pointed at the newcomer's chest, and there is impasse again. Although he is only a couple of steps into the room, the tall man does not approach any further. He stands watching the other man, his eyes cold. Flat and dark as a frozen lake. For a minute or so there is competition as to whose eyes can stare more balefully, more implacably and unflinchingly at the other. The tension is like a length of sheep gut stretched to near breaking point across the bridge of a wooden fiddle.

The man in the woollen coat, still not averting his eyes or softening his stare, slowly extends one hand toward the soldier with the gun, his emaciated fingers clawing at the air as if trying to pluck a piece of fruit from a high tree. The white man stares; his eyes widen, bulging as though being strangled or drowned. The veins in his temples stand out like cord, throbbing with air-choked blood, the pulse almost audible in the silent recording.

The tall villager begins to draw his hand slowly towards himself, tugging painfully and with difficulty, as if pulling against a terrible resistance. He body arcs with the effort, although he keeps his feet steady on the pale dirt.

The white man's mouth drops open, his face pitiful like the first sob of a newly weeping child. The tape crackles as if in sympathy. The hand on the barrel of the gun weakens, begins to falter. His strength is failing him and he cannot focus his eyes well enough to keep his aim true. His face becomes a paler grey, as the trodden snow in the valleys. His lips open and close as if he cannot breathe, but he is too tired to struggle against whatever is choking him.

The long-haired shaman pulls further. The tension increases, as if he is tugging on a young sapling that bends so far, but could spring back out of his grasp at any moment. There is a sudden snap! Almost audible, except of course we are without sound, although the film jolts as if caught. The white man jerks physically, staring in horror, trembling on the spot.

The man in the woollen coat clutches his fist before him, tightly clenched, but with space between his fingers for a morsel about the size of a lamb's heart. He raises the empty hand to his mouth, pauses just a moment, bites with relish, sucks messily, swallows. Again. Three times.

The Russian shudders, spasms briefly, and the gun drops from nervous fingers. He crumples, slumps slowly to the ground, lies still, unconscious. Unbreathing. Not a twitch stirs the body.

The tall villager stands there with a look on his face as though he has just eaten the most delicious meal of his life. A trickle of something black that may be blood appears at one corner of his mouth, runs slowly down from his lip. He raises a finger and catches the droplet, glances down at it, then licks it off with an appreciative smack of his lips.

The scene is hushed, everyone witnessing the action is stunned into respectful silence. Even the camera seems to have stopped moving.

The second white man standing outside, having seen some but not all of what has taken place indoors, screams suddenly, causing those standing around him to startle. He throws himself forward with all his strength, breaking free of his captors, turns and runs headlong into the night. No one follows.

Without a coat, he will not live long.

A few seconds later the film reaches the end of the spool and rolls to broken static.


A slightly different version of this story was first published in Black Petals, 40, Summer 2007.