infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror fiction
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z

Death and Designation among the Asadi
an extract from the novella
by Michael Bishop

Death and Designation among the Asadi

Sundry Notes for an Abortive Ethnography of the Asadi of BoskVeld,
Fourth Planet of the Denebolan System,
as Compiled from the Journals (Both Private and Professional), Official Reports, Private Correspondence, and Tapes
of Egan Chaney, Cultural Xenologist,
by his Friend and Associate, Thomas Benedict

The Press of the National University of Kenya, Nairobi



From the private journals of Egan Chaney: There are no more pygmies. Intellectual pygmies perhaps, but no more of those small, alert, swaybacked black people, of necessarily amenable disposition, who lived in the dead-and-gone Ituri rain forests; a people, by the way, whom I do not wish to sentimentalize (though perhaps I may). Pygmies no longer exist; they have been dead or dying for decades.

But on the evening before the evening when Benedict dropped me into the singing fronds of the Synesthesia Wild* under three bitter moons, they lived again for me. I spent that last evening in base camp rereading Turnbull's The Forest People. Dreaming, I lived again with the people of the Ituri. I underwent nkumbi, the ordeal of circumcision. I dashed beneath the belly of an elephant and jabbed that monstrous creature's flesh with my spear. Finally, I took part in the festival of the molimo with the ancient and clever BaMbuti.

All in all, I suppose, my reading was a sentimental exercise. Turnbull's book had been the first and most vivid ethnography I had encountered in my undergraduate career; and even on that last night in base camp, on the hostile world of BoskVeld, a planet circling the star Denebola, his book sang in my head like the forbidden lyrics of the pygmies' molimo, like the poignant melodies of BoskVeld's moons.

A sentimental exercise.

What good my reading would do me among the inhabitants of the Synesthesia Wild I had no idea. Probably none. But I was going out there; and on the evening before my departure, the day before my submersion, I lost myself in the forests of another time, knowing that for the next several months I would be the waking and wakeful prisoner of the hominoids who were my subjects. We have killed off most of the "primitive" peoples of Earth, but on paradoxical BoskVeld I still had a job.

And when Benedict turned the copter under those three antique-gold moons and flew it back to base camp like a crepitating dragonfly, I knew I had to pursue that job. But the jungle was bleak, and strange, and nightmarishly real; and all I could think was There are no more pygmies, there are no more pygmies, there are no

* This was Chaney's private and idiosyncratic term for the rain forest the rest of us called either the Calyptran Wilderness or the Wild. T. B.

[back to main text]


From the professional notebooks of Egan Chaney: I was not the first Earthling to go among the Asadi, but I was the first to live with them for an extended period. The first of us to encounter the Asadi was Oliver Oliphant Frasier, the man who gave these hominoids their name--perhaps on analogy with the word Ashanti, the name of an African people who still exist, but more likely from the old Arabic word meaning lion, asad.

Oliver Oliphant Fraser had reported that the Asadi of Boskveld had no speech as we understood the concept, but that at one time they had possessed a "written language." He used both these words loosely, I'm sure, and the anomaly of writing without speech was one that I hoped to throw some light on. In addition, Frasier had said that an intrepid ethographer might hope to gain acceptance among the Asadi by a singularly unorthodox stratagem. I will describe this stratagem by setting down here a conversation I had with my pilot and research assistant, Thomas Benedict. In actual fact, this conversation never took place--but my resorting to dialogue may be helpful at this point. Benedict, no doubt, will forgive me.

BENEDICT: Listen, Chaney, what do you plan on doing after I drop you all by your lonesome into the Wild? You aren't thinking of using the standard anthropological ploy, are you? You know, marching right into the Asadi hamlet and exclaiming, "I am the Great White God of whom your legends foretell"?

CHANEY: Not exactly. As a matter of fact, I'm not going into the Asadi clearing until morning.

BENEDICT: Then why the hell do I have to copter you into the Wild in the middle of the goddamn night?

CHANEY: To humor a lovable eccentric. No, no, Ben. Don't revile me. The matter is fairly simple. Frasier said that the Asadi community clearing is absolutely vacant during the night; not a soul remains there between dusk and sunrise. The community members return to the clearing only when Denebola has grown fat and coppery on the eastern horizon.

BENEDICT: And you want to be dropped at night?

CHANEY: Yes, to give the noise of the Dragonfly a chance to fade and be forgotten, and to afford the opportunity of walking into the Asadi clearing with the first morning arrivals. Just as if I belonged there.

BENEDICT: Oh, indeed yes. You'll be very inconspicuous, Chaney. You'll be accepted immediately--even though the Asadi are naked, have eyes that look like the murky glass in the bottoms of old bottles, and boast great natural collars of silver or tawny fur. Oh, indeed yes.

CHANEY: No, Ben, not immediately accepted.

BENEDICT: But almost?

CHANEY: Yes, I think so.

BENEDICT: How do you plan on accomplishing this miracle?

CHANEY: Well, Frasier called the stratagem I hope to employ "acceptance through social invisibility." The principle is again a simple one. I must feign the role of an Asadi pariah. This tactic gains me a kind of acceptance because Asadi mores demand that the pariah's presence be totally ignored; he's outcast not in a physical sense, but in a psychological one. Consequently, my presence in the clearing will be a negative one, an admission I'll readily make--but in some ways this negative existence will permit me more latitude of movement and observation than if I were an Asadi in good standing.

BENEDICT: Complicated, Chaney, very complicated. It leaves me with two burning questions. How does one go about achieving pariahhood, and what happens to the anthropologist's crucial role as a gatherer of folk material: songs, cosmologies, ritual incantations? I mean, won't your "invisibility" deprive you of your cherished one-to-one relationships with those Asadi members who might be most informative?

CHANEY: I'll take your last question first. Frasier told us that the Asadi don't communicate through speech. That in itself pretty much limits me to observation. No need to worry about songs or incantations. Their cosmologies I'll have to infer from what I see. As for their methods of interpersonal communication, even should I discover what these are, I may not be physically equipped to use them. The Asadi aren't human, Ben.

BENEDICT: I'm aware. Frequently, listening to you, I begin to think speechlessness might be a genetically desirable condition. All right. Enough. What about attaining to pariahhood?

CHANEY: We still don't know very much about which offenses warrant this extreme punishment. However, we do know how the Asadi distinguish the outcast from the other members of the community.


CHANEY: They shave the offender's collar of fur. Since all adult Asadi have these manes, regardless of sex, this method of distinguishing the pariah is universal and certain.

BENEDICT: Then you're already a pariah?

CHANEY: I hope so. I just have to remember to shave every day. Frasier believed that his hairlessness--he was nearly bald--was what allowed him to make those few discoveries about the Asadi we now possess. But he arrived among them during a period of strange inactivity and had to content himself with studying the artifacts of an older Asadi culture, the remains of a temple or a pagoda between the jungle and the sea. I've also heard that Frasier didn't really have the kind of patience that's essential for field work.

BENEDICT: Just a minute. Back up a little. Couldn't one of the Asadi be shorn of his mane accidentally? He'd be an outcast through no fault of his own, wouldn't he? An artificial pariah?

CHANEY: It's not very likely. Frasier reported that the Asadi have no natural enemies; that, in fact, the Synesthesia Wild seems to be almost completely devoid of any life beyond the Asadi themselves, discounting plants and insects and various microscopic forms. In any case, the loss of one's collar through whatever means is considered grounds for punishment. That's the only offense that Frasier pretty well confirmed. What the others are, as I said, we don't really know.

BENEDICT: If the jungles are devoid of living prey, what do the poor Asadi live on?

CHANEY: We don't really know that, either.

BENEDICT: Well, listen, Chaney, what do you plan to live on? I mean, even Malinowski condescended to eat now and again.

CHANEY: That's where you come in, Ben. I'm going to carry in sufficient rations to see me through a week. But each week for several months you'll have to make a food-and-supply drop in the place you first set me down. I've already picked the spot. I know its distance and direction from the Asadi clearing. It'll be expensive, but the people in base camp--Eisen, in particular--have agreed that my work is necessary. You won't be forced to defend the drops.

BENEDICT: But why so often? Why once a week?

CHANEY: That's Eisen's idea, not mine. Since I told him I was going to refuse any sort of contact at all during my stay with the Asadi--any contact with you people, that is--he decided the weekly drop would be the best way to make certain, occasionally, I'm still alive.

BENEDICT: A weapon, Chaney?

CHANEY: No, no weapons. Besides food, I'll take in nothing but my notebooks, a recorder, some reading material, a medical kit, and maybe a little something to get me over the inevitable periods of depression.

BENEDICT: A radio? In case you need immediate help?

CHANEY: No. I may get ill once or twice, but I'll always have the flares if things get really bad. Placenol, lorqual, and bourbon, too. But I insist on complete separation from any of the affairs of base camp until my stay among the Asadi is over.

BENEDICT: Why are you doing this? I don't mean why did Eisen decide we ought to study the Asadi so minutely. I mean, why are you, Egan Chaney, committing yourself to this ritual sojourn among an alien people? There are one or two others at base camp who might have gone if they'd had the chance.

CHANEY: Because, Ben, there are no more pygmies....

--End of simulated dialogue on initial methods.

I suppose that I've made Benedict out to be a much more inquisitive fellow than he really is. All those well-informed questions! In truth, Ben is amazingly voluble about his background and his past without being especially informative. In that, he is a great deal like me, I'm afraid ... But when you read the notes for this ethnography, Ben, remember that I let you get in one or two unanswered hits at me. Can the mentor-pupil relationship go deeper than that? Can friendship? As a man whose life's work involves accepting a multitude of perspectives, I believe I've played you fair, Ben.

Forgive me my trespass.


From the private journals of Egan Chaney: Thinking There are no more pygmies, there are no more pygmies, there are no ... I lay down beneath a tree resembling an outsized rubber plant and I slept. I slept without dreaming, or else I had a grotesque nightmare that, upon waking, I suppressed. A wrist alarm woke me.

The light from Denebola had begun to copper-coat the edges of the leaves in the Synesthesia Wild. Still, dawn had not quite come. The world was silent. I refused to let the Wild distort my senses. I did not wish to cut myself on the crimsons, the yellows, the orchid blues. Nor did I have any desire to taste the first slight treacherous breeze, nor to hear the dawn detonate behind my retinas.

Therefore, I shook myself awake and began walking. Beyond the brutal fact of direction, I paid no attention to my surroundings. The clearing where the Asadi would soon congregate compelled me toward it. That fateful place drew me on. Everything else slipped out of my consciousness: blazing sky, moist earth, singing fronds. Would the Asadi accept me among them as they negatively accepted their outcasts? Upon this hope I had founded nearly five months of future activity. Everything, I realized, floundering through the tropical undergrowth, derived from my hope in an external sign of pariahhood; not a whit of my master strategy had I based on the genuine substance of this condition.

It was too late to reserve either my aims or the direction of my footsteps. You must let the doubt die. You must pattern the sound of your footfalls after the pattern of falling feet--those falling feet converging with you upon the clearing where the foliage parts and the naked Asadi assemble together like a convention of unabashed mutes. And so I patterned the sounds of my footfalls after theirs.

Glimpsed through rents in the fretworkings of leaves, an Asadi's flashing arm.

Seen as a shadow among other shadows on the dappled ground, the forward-moving image of an Asadi's maned head.

The Wild trembled with morning movement. I was surrounded by unseen and half-seen communicants, all of us converging.

And then the foliage parted and we were together on the open jungle floor, the Asadi clearing, the holy ground perhaps, the unadorned territory of their gregariousness and communion, the focal point of Asadi life. The awesome odor of this life--so much milling life--assailed me.

No matter. I adjusted.

Great grey-fleshed creatures, their heads heavy with violent drapings of fur, milled about me, turned about one another, came back to me, sought some confirmation of my essential whatness. I could do nothing but wait. I waited. My temples pulsed. Denebola shot poniards of light through the trees. Hovering, then moving away, averting their murky eyes, the Asadi--individual by individual, I noticed--made their decision and that first indispensable victory was in my grasp: I was ignored!

© Michael Bishop 1973, 1979, 2000. All rights reserved.

The complete version of this novella first appeared in Worlds of If Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 1973, edited by Ejler Jakobsson, and is reprinted in Michael Bishop's collection Blue Kansas (Golden Gryphon Press, 2000)

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Elsewhere on the web:

Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)

top of page
[ home page | fiction | non-fiction | other stuff | A to Z ]
[ infinity plus bookshop | search infinity plus ]