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An Indigenous Village In The Amazon Region. Photo: Gleilson Miranda / Governo do Acre

Dwellings At An Isolated Indigenous Village In The Amazon Forest, Similar To The One That Burned. Photo: Gleilson Miranda/Governo do Acre

I Didn’t See Her. I Saw Proof Of The Fear She Caused.

In the Peruvian rain forest, while working as a travel journalist the late 1980s, I saw vivid, concrete evidence of the power with which the ghostly had gripped the hearts and imaginations of a community whose members still lived by the rhythms of their most distant ancestors. I was ascending the Amazon River by paddlewheel boat from Leticia, Colombia to Iquitos, Peru in the company of a small group of other American writers, all of us traveling at the invitation of a Peruvian adventure-tour operator. From time to time the boat would pull to the riverbank and we would disembark either to search for wildlife or to visit villages on or near the edges of the river. Some of these villages belonged to native groups that only a few decades previously had experienced their first contact with Europeanized Peruvians.

One afternoon, as our boat churned toward the landing for an Indian village set farther back in the jungle, our Peruvian guides pointed out an unusual and disturbing sight: Wispy columns of gray smoke were rising from the forest canopy directly above the place where they knew the village to be—much more smoke than a few cooking fires ever would produce. Also strange was that, even after the crew had dropped the aluminum ramp down which we all trooped to shore, not a soul came to greet us. The forest before us was dead quiet.

Along a muddy jungle path we walked a quarter mile and finally emerged into the deserted clearing where the village recently had stood. Instead of homes and other buildings, we saw nothing but smoldering mounds of ashes; not a thatched-roof structure remained. Most eerily to me, at the periphery of the village grew small gardens and groves of banana plants whose ripening fruits had gone unharvested. These people had cleared out in a terrible hurry.

We all stood looking around—looking wide-eyed at one another—and speaking in low tones about what awful event might have occurred to bring this all about. We were startled when a lone man—a non-indigenous Peruvian—stepped out of the jungle and spoke to us. The man said he had been a neighbor of the villagers until just the day before, when they’d all packed up, fired their own dwellings, and fled deeper into the forest. His explanation for the hasty departure was that a woman had died, and they’d gone away to escape her spirit.

In response to our questions, the man added that, no, the deceased had not been a bad person; she’d been a regular village woman—someone who had shared jokes with her neighbors, worked side by side with them in their communal gardens, and who had kept an eye out so their young children would not stumble into the river. But she was dead now. There just was no telling what mischief her ghost might do, so they’d needed to get away. —Paul Guernsey

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