The woman spoke loudly in words I couldn’t understand. With her free hand, she grabbed my hair. “She wants to make paintbrushes,” Patton said. My hair is finer than Achuar hair, and the woman saw its potential for achieving precise lines and decorative embellishments on the clay bowls she crafted. I went back to the States minus a crudely lopped hank of hair and with a new story that grew with each telling. The knife, which might have been a pair of scissors—I honestly don’t recall—became a machete. The machete acquired bloodstains. The potter took on a stony glower that I claimed to have interpreted as: This scrawny woman in the bulbous shoes annoys me, and I will take her head.
It was a preposterous story. The Achuar were not head shrinkers—as adversaries of the Shuar, they were the shrinkees—and I knew this. I was the latest in a long line of white folk who’ve visited Jívaro country and come home with embroidered tales of scary encounters.