Arcas' Bones (5.5/12)- A Day in the Life
Decrypting file… Please Standby
From: Terence Linnaeus
To: Rosalind Williams
Culture shock is not an anthropological term, but there is no other way to describe my initial experience among the Arcasians. I realized that prior to my arrival, I had been thinking about this culture in broader ethnographic terms such as settlement patterns, genealogies, marriage networks, and lineages. I had neglected the subtleties of interpersonal relationships and social interactions that are the bane of human existence. I had ignored the basics of neuro-ethnography! It didn’t take long for the consequences of my oversight to catch up to me.
Given that the Arcasian adults were still on edge, their children were free to roam around without much supervision. An unruly mob of kids immediately swarmed our research station. So, Esmeralda and I became the de facto babysitters.
They usually show up around meal time to see what new culinary delights our food generator concocts. Though we have tried to randomly change our meal times, they quickly catch up to our game and find ways to beat it. Sometimes, they place informants near our hut, where they can keep an eye on our activities. Talk about turning the ethnographic tables. As soon as they see us begin to retrieve supplies or initiate any food procurement activity, they whistle and make bird-calls, alerting each other about our actions. The clarity and precision of their calls seems almost unbelievable. They seem able to accurately transmit information with the whirs, whistles, and chirps. Their cleverness knows no bounds and neither does their curiosity.
“What are you making, foreigner?”
“Is that delicious to eat or does it taste like excrement?”
“Share your food. The aunts haven’t fed us.”
“Does that food make your skin pale?”
They are fascinated by the food generator and cannot understand how it is capable of making food out of nothing. Esmeralda tried to explain how it works. She generated a meal of ribs to demonstrate the concepts involved in quantum reproduction. Pigs are abundant on this island and one of the main sources of food. Unfortunately, some of the concepts related to physics have no equivalent terms in the Arcasian language.
In their interactions with each other, you can see the overall organization of this society. The children split themselves into groups based on gender. When they visit us, for example, the girls enter our hut (often uninvited) and the boys stay outside waiting for the girls to invite them in. Once the girls make themselves at home by staking out a spot based on rank, they signal for the boys to enter.
The leader of the group is a tall red-haired devilish girl whose incessant demands are driving Esmeralda off the wall. Kirn is her name. Like the others, she views Esmeralda as the leader and so directs her forceful demands to her.
“You have food and do not share! Can you not see we’re children!? Our aunts are at war and have not fed us. We’re hungry!”
It is not hunger what drives them but the novelty of the food. Although we share some treats now and then, we cannot share our supplies liberally. As soon as you give one child a treat, the rest of them crowd around you begging for their own share, scolding you about the unfairness of giving to one but not the other. Esmeralda has begun designing meals that look unpalatable to them. Rice is made to look like lizard claws, bread takes the form of dead birds, and peanut butter, well you can imagine. Esmeralda has them convinced that we are savages, a point she emphasized after baking some ginger bread cookies that looked like children, and which the kids refused to eat. They seem to prefer abstract food items and not those that resemble real-world objects.
Dealing with adults is a different matter altogether. They have a rigid system of reciprocity that more often than not ends in domestic violence. The rite of exchange begins when a male knocks on your door and places a gift (such as food, weapons, or tools) in the doorway. He retreats while bowing and announcing for all to hear how generous his mistress is and what a privilege it is to receive this gift from her, and how she desires nothing but happiness for the receiver. This is followed by a laundry list of items that she does NOT expect in return but would graciously accept if the receiver were inclined to offer.
If a person rejects the gift, or if an item of lesser value is offered, then the mistress visits the offending party and loudly expresses her displeasure at being slighted. She makes veiled threats of violence by beating her male partner in front of everyone. I have tried to stop them from committing these violent acts, but unfortunately, I’ve been only partly successful.
One particular incident occurred after I rejected a gift from a woman named Peeka. In return, she wanted us to make a ‘piercing branch’, so she could strike down her enemies. We refused her gift, not wanting to contribute to the already delicate situation around us. She became outraged and agitated.
“I have given you this fruit, this fish, and this b’kuk. Yet, you do not help a warrior in need!” she shouted at a bewildered Esmeralda, who as the perceived head of the household has to deal with the ritual of gift exchange. “Do you not see the shame you have rained upon my head? I fight to protect you and your man, our honored guests! Accept my gift and give no offense. Be quick or I will beat you senseless!”
To emphasize her point, the woman kicked her male partner who had shamefully prostrated before her as she ranted at Esmeralda. Although I was trying to stay out of the matter in order to respect their social norms, I finally had enough of the situation and intervened. As I approached them, the woman and the man- who quickly picked himself off the ground- became belligerent and enraged with me for having disrupted their performance. I accepted their gift and offered them some fish hooks and fishing lines in exchange. Though they were unhappy for not receiving the weapon that they wanted, the sheepish pair took the fishing gear and left.
Acceding to their often outrageous demands is logistically impossible. We would have to spend the rest of our trip in gift exchange rituals. Nevertheless, it is an integral part of their culture, and if we are to move the project forward, we have to enter their system of reciprocity. So, Esmeralda and I have become more strategic in our approach to gift exchange. In addition to properly learning the ritual, we engage in this activity as a means of obtaining information, or as a way to transfer medical supplies to them.
Esmeralda has finished calibrating the drones, and they’re ready for deployment. We’ll be surveying the area in the next few days. The Arcasians have given us some information about the surrounding environment. I intend to sample regions that are of cultural import, including the ‘strategic’ ones recommended by General Groff.
I haven’t heard from Neil or the rest of the crew. I hope you’re having better luck on your end. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind seeing other outsiders. Esmeralda and I keep each other good company, but there is no question that the interactions with the Arcasian have begun affecting our own relationship. The power distance between us has definitely diminished due to the violently matriarchal nature of this society. Some Arcasian women stubbornly refuse to even look me in the eyes or interact without Esmeralda being present. There is no other way, however. If we want to get things done around here, we have no choice but to adapt…
The illustration in this post is now complete, or as complete as it will be. I have enjoyed the process of illustrating and painting story themes. The new watercolour brushes are fantastic. I’m planning to bookbind a sketchbook with Arches paper, so I can practice making small paintings instead of the A4 sized ones I’ve been making.