My Private Property

Mary Ruefle

It is sad, is it not, that no one today displays any interest in the art of shrunken heads. Men, women and children walk on streets, they cross fields and enter forests, they run along the edges of oceans, but none of them, to the best of my knowledge, are thinking about shrunken heads. I am thinking about shrunken heads, but keep the thought to myself, that is, inside my head, for if the subject is raised at all, it is met with horror, on account of the violence involved in the necessary removal of the head before you can shrink it. But as an art and a conception, the tribes of the Amazon displayed a genius that deserves our awe; miniaturizing and preserving a human head is a glory and wonder on the scale of the great Pyramids. I recently encountered a passage on shrunken heads in Kon-Tiki, the bestselling account by Thor Heyerdahl of his journey, with five companions, on a simple wooden raft that set sail from the coast of Peru in 1948 and landed on an uninhabited South Sea Island 101 days later. The journey, which even professional mariners thought would end in disaster, was undertaken to prove Heyerdahl’s theory that Polynesia was settled by peoples of the South American continent. It is not a book that is much read today, but the copy I found at the Goodwill was in its twenty-first printing in 1962, so it is fair to think that for many years people did think about shrunken heads, which are mentioned in passing on page sixty-two. By 1948, when Heyerdahl and his men were building their raft in a naval yard in Lima, the market for shrunken heads was strictly an illegal one, but there were still people who made their living selling the desiccated top portion of the human body. The Amazonian jungle is very dense and such a thing is hard to control. Heyerdahl’s account is brief and sketchy but one learns that it is done like this: after the requisite decapitation, the skull is somehow smashed and removed, leaving the skin of the head intact, like a sack of flesh, which is then filled with hot sand, which causes the sack to shrink without losing its shape or any of its features. The shrunken head is about the size of an orange. One of Thor’s men, who had lived in the jungle a long time, had a friend who was murdered and whose head was shrunken; a promise was made to spare the murderers in exchange for the head, and so the little head was eventually handed to its widow, who fainted. Thereafter it was kept in a trunk where it mildewed and from time to time had to be hung by its hair on a clothesline and left in the air to dry. Every time its widow saw it, she fainted. One day a mouse got into the trunk and that was the end of the head. To be eaten by a mouse! To be eaten by worms is charmless and inevitable. But for your head to be nibbled at by a mouse, for your head to become a bit of moldy cheese on a plate—that was something that spoke volumes about reversals of power, about foolishness and vanity. It reminded me of an eighteenth-century Japanese drawing I had once seen—Mice Transcribing a Book, by Kawanabe Kyosai—in which red-eyed white nice wearing kimonos are kneeling at a low desk transcribing a book, while off in the corner naked black mice are devouring the pages of another book. Am I vain to think of my head as a book? Am I not transcribing the book of my head as I write? To be eaten by a mouse! I had to learn more, so I did some research and found a more detailed account of how it is done, a method used by the Jivaro Indians of the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon, who, as far as I can tell, are known today as the Shuar; these ethno-centricities become amazingly complicated. The Jivaro, or Shuar, slit the head-flesh up the back to remove the skull, throwing the skull in the river to appease the river Gods. The eyes and the mouth are sewn shut, to paralyze the spirit, which having died violently, would be bent on revenge. The flesh-head is boiled for two hours until the skin is dark and rubbery and one-third of its original size. The skin is then turned inside out and any flesh still sticking to the inside is scraped off, then the head is turned back and by this time resembles an empty rubber glove. The final shrinking is done with sand, and hot stones dropped one at a time through the neck opening, constantly rotated inside to prevent scorching. The sand enters the places the stones cannot, the crevices of the nose and ears, and hot stones are applied to the exterior too, to seal and shape the features. Surplus hair is singed off and the finished product hung over a fire to harden and blacken. A heated machete is applied to the lips to dry them. The lips are lashed together with native fiber. The word for shrunken heads is Tsantsa (pronounced san-sah) and the process has been in existence for as long as anyone can remember, an art so old it has no known origin. It takes about a week to shrink a head, the artist working daily. A ceremony follows where a string is inserted in the head so it can be worn around the neck, for the head of the slain enemy is a trophy, a living trophy of sorts, for it contains the spirit of the vanquished. Some tribes, though, didn’t keep the heads after the ceremony but fed them to animals or gave them to children as a plaything to be lost. In this instance, they are dolls, but with a difference—they are real dolls, every girl’s dream. It is hard to fake a shrunken head, but once they became a commodity—enter the white man—many tried. Some clever folk used unclaimed bodies at the morgue or other animals altogether, such as the heads of monkeys and goats. Where there is value, there will be experts, and experts say that nose hair, and ears, are hard to fake. An expert examining a shrunken head to determine whether or not it is real is not unlike an art expert examining a supposed Rembrandt to determine whether or not it is real: magnifying glasses are used. But I keep thinking about the mouse, who didn’t care or know if the head was anything other than a real meal. We eat jerky don’t we? Most of all, I like the idea that a head can continue to have a fate after it’s dead. And the story of the widow who fainted every time she saw her husband’s head on the clothesline took me back to my own first encounter with a shrunken head. When I was sixteen years old and in school in Brussels I would very often play hooky, skipping school it is also called, and always when I did I did the same thing, I took a tram to the outskirts of the city and wandered through that marble mausoleum called The Congo Museum. I may not have been a writer at sixteen, but I was most emphatically a daydreamer, and felt deliriously happy to be free, wandering under the hanging canoes, staring at the stuffed elephants and peering into the eye-holes of masks, with which I felt I had a special relationship. Of course I am filled with retrospective shame, but not for my feeling of freedom, freedom is something one should never feel ashamed of, but for my sheer and utter ignorance; I can now say that my ignorance was not in any way caused by my absence in the classroom, I can assure you my school did not teach what I now know to be true—that the museum I wandered in was built on rape and plunder and pillage and oppression and murder, that everything in it was stolen, that the very wealth necessary for such acquisition was stolen, wealth acquired by force of so filthy and unspeakable an evil our heads cannot fathom it and have no single word for it, but must resort to endless corridors of words, each corridor turning into another corridor a thousand miles longer than the last in our hopeless search for some inner chamber of understanding that does not exist. Among these millions of words there are two, rubber and ivory, that stand alone, that break off from the others and river around the world in the form of automobile tires and jewelry and piano keys. But commerce and culture quickly lead us down a corridor leading to more automobile tires and jewelry and piano keys, and their equivalent, money, and I want to go the way of shrunken heads, and dolls, soft rubbery flesh and ivory-like porcelain, skin and bones, faces and masks. At sixteen, I was not much the other side of dolldom, so it is little wonder that there in the Congo Museum I fell in love with a shrunken head. I would do the same today, for I doubt much has changed in that old museum except for the signage. Of course, the head was not Amazonian but African. I don’t know how the art evolved on that continent, but genius flourishes everywhere, it has always been so and will always be so, and there will always be people who believe otherwise. As I said, a shrunken head is as close to a real doll as one could ever come, and in this sense it is both a child’s toy and an adult toy—it’s another person after all—and I was not then, nor am I now, immune to the charms of having someone else to play with. He was dangling from an invisible thread, much like a spider does, from the top of a glass case taller than I was. He was the size of an orange. He was particular and unique and human and utterly real, a man with eyes and eyelashes and hair. It was only later that I learned that the hair and eyelashes do not shrink with the flesh of the face, and so the shrunken often have the luxurious eyelashes of a child, and the hair is much longer than the face, though often cut, so great is the human impulse toward proportion. But my man had long uncut hair, and as it was 1969 I didn’t think anything of it; all the men I liked had long uncut hair. His skin had the sheen of an eggplant—it must have been oiled—and all the purples of that fruit were in it; his nose was broad and flat, his eyes deeply set, unnaturally so, and beautifully shining, but so many years have passed I cannot be sure of what was there and what was not, though I returned to look at him countless times; he was, after awhile, what I came to look at, and at some point I began to commune with him. I don’t remember what it was we communed about, but he possessed me as I possessed him, and to possess the head of a beloved, no less than the head of an enemy, is the greatest sickness on earth. I could enter the museum blindfolded and turn exactly the right corners, one after another, to find myself standing before him at eye-level. I shall never forget his expression: he looked startled. No other words come to mind. And though I could not see myself, I must have look startled, too. We stood facing each other the way, when you come upon a deer unexpectedly, you both freeze for a moment, mutually startled, and in that exchange there seems to be but one glance, as if you and the other are sharing the same pair of eyes. The years passed. I left the city, I never returned, the signage in the museum changed, of that I am sure, but the impression left upon me by the shrunken head has never changed, so that I now wonder why human beings do not incorporate the art of shrinking heads into their burial rites. I am serious. What prevents us from saving the heads of the dead we bury, since we can make them the sizes of oranges (or apples), and keeping them, out of the deepest love and respect, for our descendants, for whom the heads will become ancestors, for what are ancestors but the loved ones of our loved ones, since a single act of love, down through the ages, has procured what we call the future? I am presuming, of course, that procreation involves love, which it very often does not, and so I hesitate to say love is the greatest traveler, I could just as easily say sex; perhaps love is but symbolic behavior toward sex—it is certainly symbolic behavior toward the living and the dead. I am most interested in shrunken heads as symbolic behavior toward the dead. Marks of being a human involve symbolic behavior toward the dead; no other animal does it to the extent humans do. Don’t we carry photographs of the heads of those we love who have died? Don’t we frame their heads and keep them on the mantle as a reminder of all that is precious and binds us to this life? And before there were photographs, that rage of the well-to-do, that sign of commerce and culture, there were hand-painted miniatures (if you could afford them), exquisitely detailed renditions of the head, kept in a protective locket or box that could be carried inside a jacket or coat. Someone leaving on a long journey would carry such a head. A Belgian officer or intrepid explorer would carry such a head into the African jungle. Surely Commandant (afterwards Baron) Dhanis, making his way toward Katanga, carried such a head, and surely from time to time he took it out of his coat or jacket and looked at it. And his heart was filled with love, even if that love did not extend to the foliage around him, nor to the people whose habitat it was, several of whom were artists in shrinking heads, no less than the miniaturist. The human heart is hard to fathom, no less than the human head. They both contribute to human behavior, the hardest of all to fathom. I don’t know when psychiatrists and psychologists were first called shrinks, but the term has stuck. I confess I don’t understand it myself, for my personal experience with psychotherapy is that it expands the head in wondrous ways, it educates the mind to view itself, and others, from new perspectives amounting to vistas. There is nothing small about it. I first began seeing a shrink after the death of my mother. I was then in my mid-forties and considered myself highly intelligent. A large part of my intelligence depended on my total ignorance of how ignorant I really was. I was not unlike Commandant Dhanis, the Belgian aristocrat who carried a miniature head into the jungle without realizing the Congolese were far superior in that art. Even today, when I muse about preserving the heads of loved ones by post-mortem shrinkage, I am ignorant; I seldom stop to consider the obstacles and absurdities of my plan. My mother’s head, for example, could not have been shrunk by any means, as she died from injuries sustained in a gruesome accident, which resulted in her head, during the few remaining weeks of her life, swelling to inhuman proportions. My mother’s head went, rather quickly, from the size of a head to the size of a watermelon to the size of a prize-winning pumpkin. It was impossible to look at it (her) unless you pretended you were watching a horror film and that it wasn’t real, but a kind of doll fashioned by special effects. At least that is how I remember enduring one such viewing. Unlike a shrunken head, when a human head is enlarged it cannot sustain its features, the eyes and the nose and the mouth all disappear in one gigantic gelatinous mass; such a head does not remotely resemble the person it belongs to. So much so, we pinned a photograph of my mother over her hospital bed so that the doctors and nurses might know what their patient looked like. It seems strange to me now, the gesture of that photograph, as none of the medical staff knew her before her accident, and there was no hope at any time that her head would deflate to that of a recognizable person. I think we pinned that photograph up for ourselves, so we could remember her as we knew her. No, my mother’s head, sadly, could not have been shrunken, by even the greatest artist, and yet her head has always figured into my daydream of having twelve shrunken heads, each one belonging to someone who has passed through my life, touching me in some way, and I would keep my dozen heads in an egg carton made especially for them, twelve beloved heads kept safe and together. I would never let them mold or rot, I would not let the mice near them, their fate would be to remain exactly as they were in life, exactly as they are, albeit orange-sized and portable, and from time to time I would take them out and look at them and be startled, and I think of the widow who fainted at the sight of her husband’s head, and I think if I could hold the head of a single beloved in my hand I would indeed feel faint, but I think also I would get used to it, I would grow calm and be moved in the tenderest of ways, just the sight of them there in my hand, resting gently and safely (a shrunken head cannot be broken) with such tiny and shining eyes, why resting gently and safely with such tiny and shining eyes it would be as if they were but babies, returning to live again.  I am ashamed to think of the baby heads as my private property, but I do. It has been said that inside the human head is to be found the only freedom that exists for all, but very often that freedom grows lonely and bored and frightened and yearns to join another head, very often owning one head is not enough, owning our own head gives rise to the desire to own other heads, not only out of the desire for communion and protection, but also out of the desire for control and power. Thus the King of Belgium declared a vast territory as his private property, and all heads within it, including (unbeknownst to him) all the shrunken heads, heads shrunken after a week’s worth of artful work. I don’t really know anything about heads, though I spend a disproportionate amount of my time thinking about them, and more time than ever since seeing a shrink. I am not even sure I own my own head, but my innermost fantasy is to own twelve beloved heads nestled in an egg carton, to comfort me in moments of dearth in exchange for my infinite love. It is as if I wanted to be a god or a king, and I can’t even call myself a benevolent one; I want, as my personal private property, twelve human heads. I have often thought god needs prayers to remind himself he is important, and still matters. Without our interceding glances, what would he be but a shrunken head on the end of a thread in a museum of ideas? Sometimes I think there is no place left for me to go but back to the Congo Museum, that horrific monument of smashed lies and beautiful things, and stand face to face before a face I can barely remember but do, and pray to that shriveled thing that when I die, as I must, let someone preserve me as I was then, that first day, ignorant, innocent, at my most beautiful, and overcome by another. It occurs to me I wanted to die that day. Why else would I have skipped school and wandered off alone and found a friend among the dead? One who thrilled me to life? Oh my pantheon of shrunken heads, struck like new-laid eggs in a carton, comfort me when my rivers are high, comfort me when my waters are gone, for I can almost hear you breathing.

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