She had set off yesterday to find a Yanomani village in the mountains and said she would be back that night. But no one had seen her. I cast around, through the shanties and bars the miners had erected, among the groups of men in the bottom of the pits, without success. I found my friend Paulo, a mechanic who had defended the indigenous people in arguments with the other miners, and we struck up the valley to look for her. The river ran orange and dead, choked by the forest clay disturbed by the mines. Around it, the valley was a wasteland of pits, spoil heaps and toppled trees. The miners who worked a stake called Junior Blefé told us that Barbara had passed through the previous day but had not returned. A man with a drinker’s face and a black eye knew how to find the village and agreed to guide us. We set off, running, into the mountains.
Soon after we entered the darkness of the forest we began to find the prints of Barbara’s plimsolls, a day old, overlain by the naked tracks of the Yanomani. I kept my eyes on the ground, but every so often Paulo would stop and shout. ‘Look at the water, look at those trees: so beautiful, isn’t that beautiful?’ I would stand and gaze for a moment, and see trees weighed down above clear water by moss and epiphytes, damselflies pausing in spots of light.
We ran on, following Barbara’s footprints, slipping on the clay path. By midday we started to climb steeply; my breath came as if drawn trough a sheet. Soon I saw light ahead of us: we were reaching the top of a mountain. From its crest we saw women on the far side of the valley, dressed only in loincloths, moving through banana groves, carrying baskets of fruit. Hills stepped away into silence, forested, undisturbed. We remained hidden among the trees for a few minutes, then we walked down to the lap of the valley and up into the gardens, calling out in Portuguese that we were friends. They stood still and watched us come close. I put out my hands and they shook them with shy grins.
‘White woman,’ I said. ‘Have you seen the white woman?’ I mimed Barbara’s height and long hair.
They laughed and pointed up the slope behind them, into the forest. We began to run again, over the mountain and down into the next valley. We stumbled, exhausted, along the valley floor, tripping on roots, blundering into trees. We turned a corner of the path and stopped.
In the glade beside a stream a crowd of people sat or knelt, the honey of their skins cooled by the stained-glass light of the forest. The women wore feathers in their ears, the painted spots and stripes of wildcats; and jaguar’s whiskers: stems of dried grass piercing their noses and cheeks. In the middle of the circle, radiant as a flower in the green dark of the forest, was Barbara.
She turned and smiled. ‘Glad you could make it.’