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Hair Mountain by Louise Young

March 19, 2012

I wake to a scream: a wordless yelp of pain or perhaps fear that’s cut off before it can develop into a cry. In the stark silence that follows, moonlight streams through gaps in the bamboo walls that surround me. I listen to the breathing of the surf: my heart slows to the rhythm of the waves. To orient myself, I remember the dawn flight from Panama City in the ten seat prop Otter, remember paddling a dugout canoe while Pablo steered and gossiped in his odd mixture of Kuna/Spanish/English. I’m on the indigenous Kuna island of Mamitupu, my cabana far removed from the community and all other people – or so Pablo has assured me. The whisper of waves is interrupted by a slurp as something slides into the ocean.


Morning. The hazy, early sun angles past the white sand beach to guild row upon row of low, rounded mountains as uniform as the corrugated surf of the Caribbean. The first colors of the day are precise: blue ocean, yellow sun, green jungle. Beside me, Pablo spoons sugar into his morning drink of chocolate and ground corn. He swirls his cup to dissolve the granules, tastes, adds another teaspoon of raw cane, then settles into his chair with his back against the bamboo wall of my cabana.

I want to ask Pablo about the scream I heard – or thought I heard – last night, but Kunas can be Sphinxlike in their evasion of direct questions. Pablo will tell me what happened in his own time and on his own terms – if he tells me at all. I study the mainland, where a strong golden ray breaks through the morning mist to define the nearest mountain, highlighting scraggly plantations of banana, corn and rice.

Pablo raises his head and with his chin points toward the golden-lit mountain. “Opsuli Yala.”

I know the word opsuli: monkey. “Yala means mountain?”

“Eh-yea,” he affirms in Kuna. When I met Pablo fifteen years ago he was nearly fluent in English, but since then his language skills have atrophied like an unused muscle.

“I always thought that yala meant homeland.”

“It means both.” I love this about the Kuna language: the use of metaphor is so deeply ingrained that one word can stand for two entirely different concepts. Goa means both a human baby and a deer; waga is a squawking parrot or a Panamanian.

“There are monkeys up there?”

“Before.” Pablo sips his chocolate, grimaces, and adds more sugar. “Not anymore.”

“Do all of those mountains have names?”

“Hunters used to have names for all of them. Most of the old names though….” Pablo’s voice trails off, then revives. “There’s one called Sayla Yala.”

“Sayla — like the community leaders?”

“Sayla also means” — he reaches over and takes a lock of my hair between his fingers, rubs it for a moment as if he needs the tactile connection to remind him of the word — “hair.”

“Hair Mountain?”

“During the war, the Americans stationed soldiers there to guard the Canal. There was a tower on top of that mountain, and about a hundred soldiers lived there.”

“Near here?”

“Sully — no. It was deeper in the jungle. I’m not exactly sure where it was: I’ve never been there. I’ve only heard the story from hunters. They say that there’s still a concrete foundation on that mountain, and the remains of buildings where the soldiers lived.”

“But no one’s up there now?”

“The soldiers were only there for a week or so. They shipped out from here — my father was one of the hunters who guided them through the jungle and up to where the tower was. They were all young men — he said most of them didn’t seem old enough to be away from home. They didn’t know the jungle.”

“What happened?”

“About five days after the soldiers got to the tower — it took my father almost that long to get home after leading the Americans up there — another group of soldiers showed up on the island. They said that the soldiers on the mountain hadn’t answered any radio messages, that they hadn’t been heard from for several days. So my father had to go back to the jungle and up that mountain again with the second group of soldiers. These were older men, they’d been trained for the jungle. But even they had a hard time getting to the tower. And when they got there, no one — not the jungle soldiers, not my father, no one — could believe what they found.”

Pablo pauses in his narration to add dramatic effect. The Kunas are still an oral society and storytelling is a finely practiced art.

“And that was?” I prod when the pause begs for a prompt.

“They didn’t find anything: no people, no bodies, no food: no trace of anything from the soldiers except their hair.”


“There are stories from back when the Spanish first came to the jungle here of an animal, a rat, that lives in the mountains. They say these rats travel in huge packs and devour everything they encounter. Like those fish in the Amazon — what are they called?”


“Like piranhas. Only on land. During the day they’re invisible: there’s no clue they’re around. Only at night they attack. And they eat everything.”

“Except hair.”


“And they’re still in the jungle?”

Pablo points again with his chin to the mountains now swathed in cloud. “Who knows if they were ever there, what those people saw or imagined. The Kunas believe that often what is most dangerous is not alive.”

“Like ghosts?”

Pablo scowls and turns his face away. “In the dark your soul, your dreams, your fears are all naked, unprotected. And so are the souls and dreams and fears of all of the animals around you. Who knows h—” The word cuts off abruptly. He looks at me, then smiles. “Who knows.”

Louise Young has published a novel, SEDUCING THE SPIRITS, which was a finalist in the literary fiction category for ForeWord magazine’s Book of the Year Award in 2009.


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  • March 20, 2012

    This is thrilling – not "merely" in a "thriller-sense" – but in the joy of a great story. Fascinating look, culturally and linguistically, at life in this particular place.

    Tony Press