American Primitive

Lisa Norris

Betsy walked onto the lawn, pulling her sweater tight. It was chillier here than in Quezon City. The air was so cool and pure it almost hurt her to breathe. At the edge of the lawn, the land fell away into a tangled ravine. Distant slopes rose above it, covered with the same color green that made Betsy want to close her eyes, that was almost too much for her. Mists formed a solid bank like sea foam beneath the slopes. It was as if the mountains were islands. Betsy was standing on an island. She felt marooned.
In Quezon City, they lived inside a compound called JUSMAG. JUSMAG stood for Joint US Military Advisory Group. Betsy's father--all the fathers she knew--were here to help the Filipino Army and Navy. What Betsy didn't understand was why, if they were here to help, the compound was surrounded by barbed wire. There were Filipino guards at the gates. Although Betsy rode a bus out of the compound to get to the American School in Manila, the school, too, was surrounded by a fence. When she got home in the afternoons she watched a show called "The Uncle Bob Show." Uncle Bob, a man with a blonde crewcut and dark-framed heavy glasses, always started by talking about American children who had been kidnapped, in which case he displayed their pictures; or who had been injured by playing with fireworks, in which case he displayed pictures of their hands with mangled or missing fingers. Betsy knew she would never play with fireworks, but she sometimes wanted to talk to the Filipino men she saw at the compound gate, men with cars who watched her walk by as if she were special.
But her father said no, she wasn't to speak to them, they just wanted what the Americans had--they were hungry.
"Should we bring them some food?"
"No, honey. They're not hungry like that. They're hungry for what we have." They sat at the dining table. The maids were in the kitchen. He gestured toward the silverware, the furniture, the chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
"But they're nice. They always wave at me."
"Don't be stupid," her father said.
"Bill," said Betsy's mother, Alice. "Honestly. Why must you talk like that?"
In the car on the way up into the mountains, her father called her stupid again. She had tried to be good, but when they rounded the curves she couldn't help sliding into her brother Logan. Logan rested his knees against the seat in front of him, wedging himself. He wore a crewcut that made his head look square and had long, skinny arms and legs like a spider's. But he was stronger than a spider. When Betsy slid into him, he pushed her back, hard. That made her cry. Finally her father pulled the car off by a market, turned around in his seat, and shook his head. "Stupid." Under the thatched roof, toward the front of the market, hung a row of shrunken heads. He pointed a finger at them. "You want to wind up like that?"
"Please," Alice had said. "You're scaring Betsy." She opened a compact and refreshed her lipstick. "Maybe we'll all feel better if we stretch our legs."
The people in the crowded shop spoke a language Betsy didn't understand. She'd learned some Tagalog from the maids and some Spanish at the American School, but all she could do in either language was count to ten. Betsy's father had a firm hold on her hand. His palm was big and dry. Today he didn't have on his uniform, but people stepped aside for him anyway. He was bigger and handsomer than most. Betsy's mother draped an arm around Logan's shoulders and glided next to Betsy's father, the same way she did when they had a cocktail party and she moved from group to group. She wore pale blue shorts and a white linen embroidered blouse. Betsy straightened up, trying to walk like her mother, but she was stopped by the proximity of the shrunken heads, on the wall to her left now, just past a table of carved wooden bowls. Her father tugged at her hand. "Come on, babe, they're not real."
Betsy stared. "What are they made of?"
"Wood and horse hair, probably. They're not real," he said again.
After they'd returned to the car and started up the mountain again, her father said in a disgusted voice, "These people are throwbacks."


How could there be headhunters in a place like this? In movies they were always in hot jungles, not up in mountains so high they made you think of God. Betsy's parents didn't go to church, but behind their house on the compound was a small chapel where Betsy took piano lessons. The door to the chapel was unlocked all the time, so she could practice there between lessons. She liked going into the building alone. She always opened the door slowly, afraid she might interrupt someone who was praying, but most of the time the chapel was empty except for a feeling. The feeling waited for her. It was like being scared and happy at the same time. She got the feeling when she closed the door behind her and listened to the quiet and looked up at Jesus on the stained glass window stretching out his hands to the little children. All the children were beautiful and smiling. No wonder Jesus loved them so much. When she sat down at the piano to practice, she prayed that God would forgive her for filling His house with so many wrong notes. It was a good thing Daddy didn't hear her. He would probably say she was making his head hurt. They were on this vacation, Mommy had said, because Daddy needed a rest. His head hurt a lot. At night sometimes Betsy could hear him yelling at her mother. Once she'd heard a glass break. The next morning her mother's face was cut. When Betsy asked what happened, her mother said she'd had an accident. She'd had another one about a week ago. Betsy saw a big ugly bruise on her mother's arm. Maybe Mommy needed a vacation, too.
Logan came up beside her, his skinny legs pale in the deepening shadows.
Betsy whispered, "What do you think? Do you think they're really out there?"
"No," Logan said. But he looked alert, his fists clenched and slightly raised. A few minutes ago, he'd called her a baby for being afraid of the headhunters. She'd run into the cottage because she'd heard something in the woods. It sounded like a bird call, but maybe that was the noise the headhunters used when they wanted to signal each other. She imagined them circling her in the dark woods, raising their spears; so she ran. Inside, her parents had their feet propped on the windowsill. They were drinking martinis. Betsy buried her face in her mother's lap.
"What a baby," Logan had said.
"I'm not a baby," Betsy had replied.
"Go outside with your little sister and protect her from the headhunters," Bill had said. "That'll keep you busy."
So Logan had followed her. For some reason Logan wasn't afraid of the headhunters. Betsy knew what he was afraid of: the dogs' heads displayed in the market. When he had seen them, Betsy had heard him gasp, then watched as he turned away, closing his eyes. They'd had a dog in the States--Butterscotch, a cocker spaniel. They'd had her since she was a puppy. Sometimes she slept with Logan. Often, even though their parents had forbidden it, Betsy saw Logan feed the dog under the dinner table. The dog went everywhere with him--to the neighbors' houses, on bike rides. They'd left her with their grandparents. Betsy and Logan both missed her. Betsy couldn't imagine eating her.
"I don't think I could cut off somebody's head," Betsy said.
"I could," Logan replied. "I'd sneak up with the other headhunters and we'd surround the enemy and whoosh." He swiped the air with his hand. Then he narrowed his eyes and stared into the forest in the direction Betsy was looking. The shadows had deepened between the trees.
"You'd be as easy to catch as a gecko," he said to his sister. Geckos were the lizards that clung stupidly to the walls of their house on the compound. Logan could catch them by grabbing their tails, but when he did, the tails detached and the head and body escaped.
Betsy whimpered, a puppyish sound.
"Don't worry," Logan said. "I'll protect you."
By the time their mother called them in for dinner, it was almost completely dark. The forest was blacker than the open area around the cottages; it looked like the mouth of a cave. A few stars appeared in the sky. Betsy had taken Logan's hand and would not let it go as they walked around the periphery of the empty cottages. By the weekend, there might be other military families here, but Daddy had taken his vacation in the middle of the week to avoid the crowd.
"If there were an invasion now," Logan said, "it'd be all up to me and Dad to protect you and Mom."
"Just like General MacArthur."
In school they had learned that Gen. Douglas MacArthur had rescued the Filipinos from the Japanese after they invaded during World War II. Betsy imagined the Japanese flocking to the ocean like ants, plunging into the sea foam trying to escape while MacArthur stood like a giant on the headland. When the children played war with their friends on the compound, the boys flipped coins to see who would be Gen. MacArthur. After the Americans captured the Japanese, they put them in prison in Mark Sippowitz's sky fort. Unlike the Japanese, the Americans were kind to their prisoners. They allowed the girls to bring the prisoners lunch. But when the Japanese caught the Americans, they kept them in cardboard boxes Doug Muenster had in his clubhouse and pretended to push splinters under their nails. The girls pleaded for the Americans' lives, but the Japanese just laughed at them, saying, "They ah the enemy. We wrike to tleat them bahd."
When Betsy looked at the pictures in her history book, she noticed that in addition to actually winning, the Americans also looked like winners. They were taller and whiter than the Japanese, and their uniforms, without the red zeros, looked less sinister. Her father, in his khaki shorts and green golf shirt, blonde hair cut short like Logan's, was handsome, too. Weekend days, he got out his putter and showed Logan and Betsy how to hit a golf ball into a cup. Sometimes they went swimming at the compound pool. Daddy threw her up in the air, making her squeal, then caught her as she splashed down in the pool. Lately Logan and Daddy were helping Betsy learn how to ride her bike, taking turns holding the seat while she wobbled down the street. Their mother would applaud as Betsy went by, encouraging all of them. But when Daddy drank martinis, his voice got louder, his face meaner. He picked on Logan or Betsy or their mother, criticizing the way they ate or sat or talked, but usually their mother said, "Honestly, Bill. What do you need?"
Sometimes that made him angry and quiet. He stabbed at his food with his fork. But once he had put his big hands on the table, palms down, and stuck his upper teeth out over his bottom lip as if he were a vampire. "I doon't know, Aleeece. I moost be hoongry."
He had a way of grabbing Betsy's mother when she was least expecting it, pushing his body into hers from behind. It made Betsy nervous; she thought her mother seemed frightened. Sometimes she tugged on her father, saying, "Let Mommy go," but he just laughed and squeezed her mother tighter and said, "I'm not hurting her, babe. I'm just reminding her where she belongs."
Once he had grabbed Betsy like that, too. When she screamed, her mother came into the room, and her father let her go. He put his hands out to the sides, shrugging his shoulders. "What? I was just playing."
"I hope Marcos can figure out how to get these people organized," her father was saying when Betsy and Logan walked in. Betsy knew Marcos was the new President of the Philippines. Once, her parents had been invited to the Palace to meet him. They'd shaken his hand.
"See any headhunters?" her father asked.
Betsy shook her head.
"You know," said her father, "they don't take heads anymore, unless you take one of theirs first, but they used to."
Alice sat up in her chair and touched her husband's arm. "Bill, stop."
He looked at the children, then back at his wife. "It was especially bad during the Jap occupation." He sighed, shaking his head. "But even a headhunting expedition takes some organization, and the Phil Navy ain't got that."
"What did they do during the Jap-oc-cu-pa-tion?"Betsy asked.
Her father started to speak, but her mother said, "Now hush."
When they sat down at the table, everyone was quiet. Betsy's stomach cramped. Logan glanced at his father.
"What's everybody so glum about? Even the air's better up here." Alice tossed her hair back, smiling.
Bill took a drink of his martini, then shoveled a fork full of macaroni into his mouth.
"Are you going to play golf tomorrow?" Logan asked. "Can I ride on the cart?"
"Maybe," his father said.
"Me too?" Betsy asked.
Her father looked his plate, his jaw working furiously.
"Let Daddy eat," Alice said. "He had a long drive today."
"You know, in some ways the headhunter's ethic makes sense," Bill said. He drew his finger across his neck. "A head for a head." He pointed across the table at Alice. "Not a free ride like the one we're giving."
"'An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,'" said Alice. "Gandhi said that."
"The guy was assassinated. By his own kind yet."
"If we go on the cart tomorrow, can I try hitting some, too?" Logan asked.
Bill put down his fork. "You know, even though the headhunters aren't taking heads anymore, they do still take children."
"What for?" Logan mumbled, looking down at his hamburger.
"To sell."
"Bill," his wife said. "Honestly."
"These kids aren't scared. Come on. They belong to me." He raised his hands up like claws and grimaced. "What'd you kids see out there? Any ooga-boogas?"
Betsy looked down at her plate, tapping her sneakers together.
"Nothing," Logan said.
Alice's lipstick was smeared. She smiled loosely, lifting her martini from the table. "Bill--"
Logan picked up his hamburger. His father pursed his lips and drank. Betsy had both hands around her cup of milk. Her father put his glass down.
"Maybe Betsy doesn't believe me," he said in an accusing voice. "Maybe she's scared. Maybe she'd rather be home playing with her dollies."
"No I wouldn't." Her hands shook as she put her milk down and picked up her hamburger. She chewed, but her stomach was churning. It felt like she was still riding in the station wagon on the twisting road up into the mountains. The meat tasted leathery, like the skin on the shrunken heads.
"You eat that," her father said in a loud voice. "You eat it now or you're going to get a spanking."
Betsy gagged with her mouth closed, praying to Jesus, trying not to spit out the food. She tried to convince herself that the meat was from a cow. Tried to forget the sensation of movement around the curves, sliding around in the back seat; tried to put the shrunken heads out of her mind and tell herself the faces she thought she saw in the woods were only in her imagination. She looked at her mother, but her mother had the false smile she got when she wanted everything to be all right, and she looked at Logan, but he had his eyes shut tight, and she was afraid to look at her father, so she just looked into her plate, at the bitten hamburger, at the ketchup oozing from beneath the bun, and it made her think of the blood dripping from the hands of Christ in the picture Bible and from beneath his crown of thorns, and the blood that would spurt from the neck of the victim when the headhunters lopped off their heads, and the blood from her scraped knee when she fell off her bike onto the road, and the hamburger filled her mouth like flesh--it was the flesh of an animal-- and there was nothing she could do about it, the nausea took over, and though she put her hands to her mouth, the vomit came, overflowing onto her plate, onto the table.
"Ohhh," Logan moaned, putting his hands to his mouth. He got out of his chair and backed up from the table.
Tears streamed down Betsy's face. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry."
Her father sat without moving. "I told you to eat your dinner," he said in a low, menacing tone. "I told you to eat your dinner, and you turned it into that."
Logan looked at his plate.
Alice's face was white. She slid her chair back from the table and got up and stood behind Betsy, rubbing her back. "She's sick, that's all. You can't punish her for that."
"She's not sick. She's pretending to be sick so she doesn't have to eat. I work hard to put this food on the table." He stood up, unbuckled his belt, and took it off. He ran the leather between his hands "She's ungrateful, just like the fucking Filipinos. Do something good for someone and they barf it back in your face." He started toward Betsy.
"Bill, don't," his wife said. "We're all on vacation. This is supposed to be a vacation." She wiped Betsy's mouth with a napkin, lifted her up and pushed her toward the bathroom, then turned to look at her husband. "Bill--"
He grabbed her by one arm, raising the belt with the other. She raised her arms as if to fend him off.
"Mommy!" Betsy screamed.
Bill looked at Betsy in the doorway and then at Logan who stood at the table gripping the back of his chair.
Alice caught her breath. "You're drunk. You're drunk and you don't know what you're doing. Go outside." She motioned for the door. "Why don't you just go outside and take a walk. Clear your head."
He looked at his wife again, then at his hand on her arms. He let it slip down, then clenched and released his fists.
"Logan, open the door for your father," his mother said.
Logan didn't move.
"You can't kick me out," Bill said. "I'll go if I'm not wanted, but you can't kick me out." He looked like he was going to cry.
"Daddy," Betsy said. She looked at Alice. "Don't make him go away."
"All I'm saying is you need a little walk," said Betsy's mother. She was rubbing her arm where her husband had gripped it. "I'll make some coffee."
"Betsy wants me to stay," Bill said.
"Betsy's a little girl," Alice said. "What do you expect?"
Bill pointed a finger at his wife. "You're a fucking bitch," he said in a low, menacing voice. "You send me out into that jungle, don't expect me to come back."


From the lower bunk, Betsy could see the square of window. Her father was out there somewhere, walking around. Headhunters could be watching him from the woods. Logan was silent above her, but she knew he wasn't asleep. Their mother had sent them to bed. For awhile Betsy had listened to the clink of dishes as her mother cleaned up the table and washed the plates. She would have had to wipe up Betsy's vomit with paper towels. Betsy couldn't believe she had thrown up. It was awful, the awfullest thing she'd ever done. She was bad, she was evil, she prayed to God to forgive her.
"Betsy?" Logan said.
"Did you hear that?"
"I thought I heard Mom lock the door. If she locks the door, how's Dad going to get back in?"
Betsy strained her eyes, looking into the dark beyond the window for her father's shape, or the shapes of headhunters. The sound of crying came from the other room. The bedsprings creaked above her as Logan turned over.
"He shouldn't have tried to punish you for throwing up," Logan said. "He shouldn't have grabbed Mom."
Betsy's mother stood in the doorway. Her eyes were swollen and red. "You kids try and get some sleep."
"Where's Daddy?" Betsy asked.
"How's he going to get back in?" Logan said. "I heard you lock the door."
His mother said nothing.
"Mommy, what about the headhunters? Aren't the headhunters going to get him?"
Just then a face appeared at the window, a face so savage and strange that they all screamed. The face snarled; then hands appeared beside it, clawing on the window as if it were trying to come in.
"Bill." The sound came from Alice's throat as if she were strangling.
He put his hands out to either side, palms up. He said something, but they couldn't hear him through the window.
He was smiling, and once again he looked familiar, but Betsy remembered the way he had come toward her with the belt, then gripped her mother's arm; she thought of the ugly words he had said. Her father was at her window, big and handsome. In a way, she wanted to go up to the window and put her hand to the glass, but there was something about him that still wasn't right--a look in his eyes like the looks of the Filipino men outside the compound gate--so Betsy turned over. She lay with Logan above her and her mother in the doorway. She held her eyelids closed, praying to Jesus that everything would be all right, and pretended to sleep.

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CrossConnect Incorporated 1996, 1997
Published in association with the University of Pennsylvania Writers House
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