Photograph of a Deer the Day After Jonestown
I found it after a 2 a.m. Google insomnia-binge shipwrecked me on the Jonestown Flickr website, a collection archived by a survivor. A South American white-tailed deer looking off-camera, to the right of the frame, as if someone is calling him. But everyone’s dead.
He’s stopped in front of a simple wooden plant stand painted blue. In the shade of a wall of wild, knotted ivy. The shadow of the wall covers three-quarters of the image—everything else blaring in overexposed sunshine. The ground mostly bare, a few scorches of grass.
To control every micro-gesture of daily life, Jim Jones dictated a continual, accumulating list of “Instructions” in the year leading to the massacre. Instruction #111: Break heaven and earth to get medicine tomorrow. Instruction #62: No more accidents by neglect. I’m ordering it. The deer gets smaller, receding into the shade and the deep green vines each time I look. He’s peeking off the frame with a lazy curiosity, as if nothing really special happened yesterday. Instruction #85: Tell no one the formula for making soap.
Jungle vine and cassava tree and parrots lording over a wooden walkway littered with paper cups and syringes. The Temple dog face-up, already stiff, like an abandoned taxidermy project. People on their stomachs hugging each other, dead. I’ve heard the story that a bed of daisies grew where the greatest clumps of bodies fell, and I know that sounds cheaply redemptive. The daisies are lurid. Jonestown was too isolated for anyone to see what grew from the dead—one last indignity for 908 people, most of them black, killed for a racial utopia run by a white man, whose corpses bequeathed a bed of daisies in overgrown, uninhabitable rain-forest jungle seven miles from the nearest settlement. Instruction #76: Write relatives and ask for a watch. Get something out of them. Be creative. If the daisies are true, it’s only because decomposition happens in a flash when searing, fecund heat enriches the soil.
I should be too sharp to fall for a Bambi trick. It’s too predictable and manipulative: sweet little animal friend wandering with bewildered tilt of the head into a village where everyone just died. It’s the kind of image Stephen Spielberg builds entire movies around. Instruction #23: Pick up all possible cats in Georgetown. The boat is not to leave without cats. How easily I could have fallen for this place, except for the mosquitoes and snakes and jungle heat. A gigantic family saying they loved you unconditionally—you’re locked away but think you’re free.
Instruction #58: All of us have to look at education. You can whisper in someone’s ear the meaning of words. Names are difficult. Instruction #83: We have to get rid of maggots. I hate the word “research”—when will we find the solution? Instruction #12: Until further notice someone in your department will be bearing arms. Wherever you are, someone will be able to protect you.