A Quiver Full
by Melissa Wiley
The only time I shot a bow and arrow, my legs were stinging. Tsetse flies had ravaged their skin all afternoon; hundreds of jagged little teeth had ignited fires down my calves. I was in Tanzania, in a camp just 10 miles outside the Serengeti, where jackals and hyenas scurried as freely about our tents as do field mice inside a Midwestern barn. Taking aim in my mesh top and corduroy skirt, with two Masai bellowing their support behind me, I aimed my arrow at a tree some 30 feet away. When it fell about 20 feet short, in the listless trajectory of a suicidal comet, I considered not the expert skill of the hunter-gatherers behind me, but of the mythical god of love himself. I thought I understood, in a visceral, muscular-memory sort of way, how robust chubby cherubic Cupid really was. Don’t let that diaper slipping from his dimpled bum fool you, my own tired arrows seemed to say: the little man possesses deadly erotic aim.
I had always assumed that this son of Venus’ marksmanship was a function of mere priapic prowess. But now I saw there was genuine technique involved. In Masai, as in most indigenous cultures, it is the men who hunt down the beasts. The women construct makeshift housing from tall grasses and elephant dung, craft colorful jewelry and textiles, and, probably more than anything else, breastfeed ad nauseum, until their children have a formidable set of teeth of their own. There’s no end to that exhausting business in that land of Cupid’s henchmen. Without a Trojan dispensary in site, much less a public toilet to find one in, the erotic impulses produces immediate visible results. The kids just keep coming, one after the adorable other. Hardly a coincidence with all those consummate archers about, I thought.
I have never wanted children. For me, sex has only ever been animal play, without any baby animals to feed. Like millions of First-World females, I’ve tricked nature out of her drive to diversify the gene pool and appropriated its fringe felicities all for myself. I’ve swum naked under blue Caribbean skies, performed fellatio inside medieval European turrets, and done it doggy style underneath a copse of cypresses in a municipal park. Yet when I found myself with my husband in sub-Saharan Africa, there specifically to further acquaint ourselves with the primitively majestic male elephants in musth with semen-soaked thighs and high-horned impalas guarding their harems, we hardly even kissed.
There was, in our defense, a Masai ever standing guard outside our tent, poised to send poisoned darts into the bulging sinews of approaching predators if need be. Not that they would have minded our own nocturnal cries would in the least. Polygamous Masai engage in outright bonanzas of extra-marital sex, a libidinous byproduct of unions where men do all the choosing and women the acquiescing. Be that as it may, Masai men, from what I could tell, don’t really give Cupid a sporting chance. Then again, perhaps they don’t need to. Having just as good of aim, they tend to take matters into their own hands. They leave the waiting to the Westerners.
This all-out usurpation of what we might think exclusive Cupid territory is perfectly understandable. Via nothing other than the naked spear and arrow, Masai slay the lion, undisputed king of the jungle, and replenish their store of protein. Long acquainted with the Masai’s signature red cloaks, lions surrounding the Serengeti will flee any human being wearing the color perhaps most readily reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood in Western society, a society glib enough to call people by their hoodies’ color, I might note. Be that as it may, the Masai alone tread among the lions without fear, leaving the pride thoroughly nonplussed at these graceful bipedals. But only someone sufficiently deadly can remain so harmless. The Masai level no specious threats. They simply take the meat they need to survive and leave the lions to do the same. Whether the lions assume the Masai cloth is dyed in blood, as their own coats are from time to time, I cannot say. Knowing only slightly better myself, I assume the textiles bespeak the only passion whose appetite rivals hunger itself.
Images of Cupid on Valentine’s Day cards are crude vestiges of the wisdom the Masai have bodily retained but Western culture has largely lost. To its credit, Elizabethan erotica reflected the very real contemporary possibility of perishing by the sword. To die in Shakespearean parlance, as we know, is to orgasm. And the Masai have kept themselves closer, you might say, to that essential erotic wisdom—knowing that love, for all its pleasure, is a kind of death, an extinguishment of the personality, a surrender to a measureless power.
Masai approach death more directly, honing their marksmanship without the aid of steel bullets. And when Cupid strikes a Masai man, as it were, he takes the woman who stokes his desire, regardless of her cries. Erotic power goes unquestioned. I can’t say I would want to inhabit a society with such an immediate understanding of death and desire. I can’t say I would want to live so proximate to this brutality, not coming, as I do, from a culture of Red Riding Hoods and Cupids in diapers. But I have no doubt that if I did, my arrows would have flown much farther in the distance.
After aborting my arrows, I walked over to the mess tent, where I folded myself into a stiff wooden chair and watched the dying sunset with Timothy, our camp’s manager, who had been straightening the place settings in the mess tent all the while. Originally from Arusha, he had worked as a guide on Kilimanjaro before he came here, he said. He had climbed the mountain 19 times in total, carrying American tourists’ weighty North Face gear on his back, which was now curled in a thin, timorous question mark.
He brought me a round ceramic bowl filled with tea bags. The square colored papers resembled a disheveled body of feathers and beckoned to my fingertips as an ibis flew overhead. I asked which tea was his favorite, and his eyes lit with pleasure when he pronounced the vanilla. I whispered that I’d have that one, and when he brought it to me on a pale pink saucer, I savored a few sips even though it was too hot to drink. When the other Masai asked me to take up the bow again—the light was quickly dying—I smiled toward Timothy before following the narrow arroyo of trodden grass winding toward the acacia tree.
When my arrows again fell limp a few short steps in front of me, the Masai laughed kindly. I had, it was clear, inherited none of Cupid’s lethal aim. Perhaps I was at bottom too afraid of dying to surrender to the annihilation inhering in the arrows. I kissed my husband, full and greedily, as the two Masai ran ahead to fetch my stray arrows. Even with the most bounteous quiver full, I was sure I would never succeed in tagging the acacia tree, now swathed in the last remnants of an apocalyptic golden sun.
A quiver full, it must be said, is not for everyone these days, just the true hunter-gatherers, of whom there are very few left.
About Melissa Wiley
Melissa Wiley is a freelance culture and food writer living in Chicago who seizes every opportunity to walk barefoot with half-painted toenails through airport security and stammer in pidgin tongues. When writing in full-throttle English, she often invokes the memory of her parents, her kinship with the Island of Misfit Toys, and the beauty of caterpillars. Her creative nonfiction has been published in a number of literary magazines.