Jack Higgins – The Last Place God Made

She didn’t like any of it, nor for that matter did Joanna Martin. I pointed out the steam house, one of those peculiarities of up-river villages where Indians went through regular purifi-cation for religious reasons with the help of red-hot stones and lots of cold water, but it didn’t help.

We moved out through a couple of streets of shanties, con-structed of iron and pieces of packing cases and inhabited mainly by forest Indians who had made the mistake of trying to come to terms with the white man’s world.

“Strange,” I said, “but in the forest, naked as the day they were born, most of these women look beautiful. Put them in a dress and something inexplicable happens. Beauty goes, pride goes….”

Joanna Martin put a,hand out to stay me. “What was that, for God’s sake?”

We were past the final line of huts, close to the river and the edge of the jungle. The sound came again, a sharp bitter cry. I led the way forward, then paused.

On the edge of the trees by the river, an Indian woman knelt in front of a tree, arms raised above her head, a tattered calico dress pulled up above her thighs. The man with her was also Indian in spite of his cotton trousers and shirt. He was tying her wrists above her head by lianas to a convenient branch.

The woman cried out again, Sister Maria Teresa took a quick step forward and I pulled her back. “Whatever happens, you mustn’t interfere.”

She turned to me and said, “This is one custom with which I am entirely familiar, Mr Mallory. I will stay here for a while if you don’t mind. I may be able to help afterwards, if she’ll let me.” She smiled. “Amongst other things, I’m a quali-fied doctor, you see. If you could bring me my bag along from the house at some timeI’d be most grateful.”

She went towards the woman and her husband and sat down on the ground a yard or two away. They completely ignored her.

Joanna Martin gripped my arm fiercely. “What is it?”

“She’s going to have a child,” I said. “She’s tied by her wrists with lianas so that the child is born while she is upright. That way he will be stronger and braver than a child born to a woman lying down.”

The woman gave another low moan of pain, her husband squatted on the ground beside her.

Joanna Martin said,”But this is ridiculous. They could be here all night.”

“Exactly,” I said. “And if Sister Maria Teresa insists on behaving like Florence Nightingale, the least we can do is go back to the house and get that bag for her.”

On the way back through Landrosa rather unusual incident took place which gave me a glimpse of another side of her character.

As we came abreast of a dilapidated house on the comer of a narrow street, a young Indian girl of perhaps sixteen or seven-teen rushed out of the entrance on to the veranda. She wore an old calico dress and was barefoot, obviously frightened to death. She glanced around her hurriedly as if debating which way to run, started down the steps, missed her footing and went sprawling. A moment later Avila rushed out of the house, a whip in one hand. He came down the steps on the run and started to belabour her.

I didn’t care for Avila and certainly didn’t like what he was doing to the girl, but I’d learned to move cautiously in such cases for this was still a country where most women took the occasional beating as a matter of course.

Joanna Martin was not so prudent, however. She went in like a battleship under full sail and lashed out at him with her handbag. He backed away, a look of bewilderment on his face. I got there as quickly as I could and grabbed her arm as she was about to strike him again.

“What’s she done?” I asked Avila and pulled the girl up from the ground.

“She’s been selling herself round the town while I’ve been away,” he said. “God knows what she might have picked up.”

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