BACK TO THE STONE AGE
The head flight attendant had given us the customary briefing
before takeoff. It was obvious that her first language was
not English. I couldn't help but feel a sense of excitement as
the powerful engines on the 757 pushed me back in the seat.
We were a cosmopolitan bunch. Experience (and numerous
Goofy hats) told me that some on board had been to
Disney World. Others, apparently from the upper socioeconomic
end, had probably come to the land of malls and
shopping extravaganzas to update their wardrobes. But
there were also some who had the coarse hair and weathered
skin of the mestizo, those born from the mingling of
Spanish conquistadores and descendants of the Inca Empire
I love to fly, but not back where I was sitting. I like the
front left seat, where I can select my destination through my
smallest deflections of the controls. My stomach goes queasy
every time a pilot I don't know-with my life in his hands-pulls
back the power levers and we begin to decelerate
while still pointed up at an alarming angle. In the small aircraft
I fly, reducing power with the nose pointed at the sky is
an invitation to stall and spin. But my mind was on other
things this night. I tilted the seat back and closed my eyes.
On the other end of this flight I would spend a short night
in the Andes Mountains. I hoped I would not get that crazy,
suffocating sensation that had kept me awake in Quito's thin
atmosphere on recent visits. Years before, when I lived and
went to school almost ten thousand feet up in the mountains,
I could play a full game of basketball and feel fine. Now,
twenty-five years later, I had begun to understand what tourists
complain about: "I can't catch my breath" or "I wake up
gasping for air."
If they have Aunt Rachel's body ready, I should be on my
way down to the jungle early the next morning, I thought.
Just the day before, I had been sitting at home after a long
day of the same old, same old-driving around, talking on
the cell phone, haggling over a few cents now that could
make a difference of thousands of dollars down the road-the
usual knock-down, drag-out life of a businessman. When
the phone rang, I almost didn't answer. At home, Ginny answers
the phone. She is a lot nicer to telemarketers, and after
a day with my hand to my ear, I didn't want to talk into a machine
We had been expecting the call, but I still was not ready
for it. "Hi, is this Steve?" I could tell the voice on the other
end was calling from overseas. "I'm sorry to have to tell you
that your Aunt Rachel died this afternoon. I think it would be
good if someone from the family could come down. Remember,
down here we have to bury within twenty-four hours. I
can ask the doctor if he can do some embalming, but that
will only buy us a few hours. If we take too long, the authorities
will make us bury her in Quito."
Aunt Rachel had been in Quito to receive treatments for
cancer. But I knew she had wanted to be buried at home in
the jungle, with the people she loved-the Waodani. Mom
and my stepdad, Abe, were out of town. I knew they
wouldn't be able to get down to Ecuador in time. I would
have to represent the family and help bury "Star," as the people
there called her.
As we cruised high over Cuba, I wondered how to best get
my dear old aunt's body down to the jungle. And I contemplated
how I could keep the Waodani who had loved her
from being overwhelmed by "outsiders" wanting to get in on
this historic event.
I woke up to the same voice that had put me to sleep:
"Pleeze fosten yur-e seat bels fur ourr londing in Quito."
Now I was glad that I wasn't sitting in the left front seat.
Quito lies in a tight valley rimmed by Andean mountain
peaks. The city spreads right to the runway threshold, and
on this night there was a heavy fog hanging over the valley
floor. If we couldn't make a landing on our first couple of
tries, we would have to divert to the coast and spend the
night in Guayaquil, and I would almost certainly miss the
reason for which I was coming. But thankfully, we made it.
* * *
By the time I got to the Quito airport early the next morning,
Aunt Rachel, wrapped in sheets, was already lying on the
floor of the Cessna bush plane that would take us home. I
took the seat beside her body. As we flew down the Avenue
of the Volcanoes, regal snow-capped peaks rose above our
flight altitude and disappeared into the high overcast above
us. Normally, we would have made a fuel stop on the edge of
the great Amazon rain forest, but we were in a hurry. I heard
our pilot request that another plane deliver the casket and
bring extra fuel for him. I watched as we flew over the little
town where I had spent my most formative years. Aunt Rachel
had been a big part of those years. I felt a yearning to just once
more tell her how much I loved her and respected her willingness
to risk everything for what she believed. She was the
most humble, but also the most stubborn, person I had ever
known. Without the humility, she never would have been
willing to live in a thatched hut in the middle of nowhere.
Without the stubbornness, she never could have survived living
in the midst of the violent cultural chaos that characterized
life among the Waodani, known to the outside world as
"Aucas"-savages. Without her, it is possible that there would
have been no one left to welcome us at our destination.
The Waodani heard the plane coming and were standing
by the short gravel and grass strip when we landed. The
makeshift runway was surrounded on all sides by a sea of
dense jungle. Dayumae, Aunt Rachel's closest living "relative"
in the tribe, was the first one I saw after I opened the
plane door. She greeted me and then saw what was left of
the cowodi-foreigner-she had adopted as her sister more
than four decades before. Her reaction was chilling. She began
to wail, taking me by surprise. The Waodani, her own
people, don't do that. But Dayumae had spent fifteen years
living with the Quichua, a neighboring tribe, and had
adopted much of their culture. Their death wail is a dark
window into the excruciating agony of a human soul that has
little control over its own destiny. The rest of the group retreated
from Dayumae's grief.
Finally, the pilot and a couple of Waodani and I unwrapped
Aunt Rachel's shroud and lifted her body from the
plane into the simple plywood box that would serve as her
coffin. It seemed appropriate for this old Saint who had
never worried about luxuries or her own comfort. Its rustic
simplicity matched her house, which sat just a hundred yards
down the trail. We carried her there for final preparations.
No one had thought to tie Aunt Rachel's mouth shut before
rigor mortis set in. So the doctor had tied a head scarf around
her head and under her chin to keep it closed. The Waodani
women surrounded the coffin to get a last glimpse of this
woman who had become as much one of them as her ruddy
complexion and white skin would allow. Immediately, they
began an animated discussion. They spoke much too rapidly
for me to catch the details of what they were saying, but it
was clear that they were not pleased with the doctor's choice
of scarf. They untied it to find a replacement, but when they
did, Rachel's mouth opened just as though she were going to
speak. A gasp ran through the crowd, and they instinctively
recoiled. But not even mismatched accessories were going to
bring Star's eighty-two-year-old, cancer-ravaged body back
I retied Aunt Rachel's mouth shut with the piece of bright
cloth that the Waodani women finally settled on. We carried
her body over to the rustic little church just a few feet away. I
was surprised to see that there were quite a few foreigners
mixed in with the Waodani. But these were Aunt Rachel's
close colleagues and friends, who had made flights for her,
kept her two-way radio working, and helped her help the
Waodani. I could not object to their presence, although I did
ask them to let the Waodani bury Star their own way.
The Waodani, however, have no chief or other recognized
authority. Over the past forty years, they had become accustomed
to giving decision-making power to the cowodi, who
can fly and make little metal boxes talk, who have little seeds
that make diseases go away, and who perform a myriad of
other unimaginable feats. I realized they were waiting for
one of the foreigners to take charge. I stepped in.
I handed a nail for the coffin lid to each of the people who
constituted Star's closest family.
Brave, impetuous Dayumae had adopted Star and given
her the name of her young sister, Nemo, who had been
hacked to pieces in a spearing raid when she and Dayumae
were just girls. It was because of Dayumae that the tribe had
invited Aunt Rachel to live with them, along with Elisabeth
Elliot, whose husband, Jim, had also been speared when my
dad was killed. Rachel and "Aunt" Betty were the first outsiders
ever to receive such an invitation.
I also handed nails to handsome Kimo and nubile Dawa,
the first ones to believe what Aunt Rachel and Dayumae
taught them about a new way to live, a way without hating
and killing. Kimo had taken a big risk in building a house for
Aunt Rachel. Others in the tribe had been displeased and
told him it would be his grave.
I gave a nail to Mincaye, who didn't take well to allowing
foreigners in Waodani territory. He had threatened to spear
Aunt Rachel and Aunt Betty. Then one day, Mincaye mysteriously
had a change of heart and told Rachel that he had decided
to follow God's trail. After that, Mincaye became jovial
and almost happy-go-lucky.
Old Dyuwi also received a nail. When Dayumae had first
returned from the outside world with the two foreigners, he
was already a seasoned killer at age twenty. But he went
from hating and killing to peacemaking almost instantaneously.
I kept the last nail for myself.
Just before we carried Star out to the hole that had been
dug between her house and the little tin-roofed church with
chicken-wire windows and chainsawed boards, Kimo offered
an impromptu eulogy.
Waengongi Taado ante odomoncaete ante Nemo
pongantapa-"Teaching us to walk God's trail, Star came."
Aunt Rachel was large by Waodani standards and had
grown stouter as she aged. When we reached the burial site,
several of the Waodani men jumped into the grave to help
lower her coffin. I was moved to see the care and almost reverence
with which they handled the old shell that had been
so precious to those of us gathered in that little clearing. This
was the second member of my family to be buried here.
Yowe missed the signal to jump out of the grave and found
himself alone, under the coffin, as it was lowered the last
couple of feet. In desperation, he struggled to extricate himself.
In doing so, he tipped the coffin, and we all stood horrified
as we heard Aunt Rachel's body roll to the side. With all
the weight on one side, the box fell to the bottom of the
grave with a thud. No one moved.
I could almost hear Aunt Rachel giving instructions, with
Dayumae passionately countermanding them. At first, we reacted
like schoolkids whom the teacher had caught cheating.
Were we in trouble again? But I could tell that Mincaye was
trying to keep from bursting out laughing. Finally he let out a
little involuntary snort, and we all broke up. Even Star would
have enjoyed the irony of her mourners laughing at her
* * *
Strange circumstances, combined by providence, had led
this silver-haired old woman to spend half of her long life in
the wilds of the Amazon jungle with an egalitarian and violent
Stone Age people. Aunt Rachel's mother had been a
daughter of wealth, growing up with luxury and pampering.
Her father was a well-known stained-glass artist.
Rachel was Lawrence and Katherine Saint's third of eight
children and their only daughter. Because her mother was
frail, Rachel became something of a second mother to her
younger brothers, including my dad, Nate.
As a young girl, Rachel caught the attention of a wealthy
Philadelphia widow with no children of her own. That
woman lavished Rachel with the accoutrements of prosperity
that Katherine had rejected but her daughter had never
tasted. Coming home from a summer in Europe-as was the
custom of the old moneyed families in New England-the
wealthy dowager informed a teenage Rachel that she had decided
to make Rachel her heiress.
Such an inheritance would have ensured the care her
mother so desperately needed for tuberculosis, fine educations
for her brothers, and the opportunity for Rachel to be
the financial protector and provider for the family she already
But Rachel refused the offer because it would require her
to be a companion to her wealthy benefactress until her
death. "I have already made a prior commitment to do whatever
God wants with my life," she told the woman. "I cannot
make any commitment that might cause me to compromise
what I have promised to God."
Unaccustomed to rejection of any kind, the wealthy mistress
scolded Rachel harshly for her lack of gratitude and her
idealism. She summarily cut off any hope of help for Rachel
and her family. "You will not receive a cent from me, you ungrateful
girl," she informed Rachel; and she meant it. When
she died years later, she had her executor send Rachel a set
of inexpensive cuff links. "It was the only cheap possession
she owned," Aunt Rachel told me.
Feeling rejected and uncertain about what her family
would think of her hasty but principled response, Rachel
sought privacy in the bow of the passenger liner on which
they were voyaging home. In the mid-Atlantic she poured
out her heart to the One to whom she had betrothed herself
emotionally and spiritually.
"This never happened to me before or since," she told me
on one of my extended visits with her in the jungle. "But
while I was in the bow of that ship, I had a vision of a dark-skinned
tribe of people who had never heard that the Lord
Jesus loved them. And God promised me that if I continued
to be faithful to Him, He would one day allow me the privilege
of being the one to take His precious Word of love and
peace to them."
She went on to finish high school and then spent the next
twelve years working in a Christian center for drug and alcohol
addicts. The family needed help financially if her brothers
were to get adequate educations. She was content that
when her responsibility to them was satisfied, she believed
God would keep His promise to her.
Although Rachel was past the normal age limit, Wycliffe
Bible Translators accepted her as a candidate translator and
sent her to Peru to temporarily replace a translator who had
been working with a head-hunting tribe there. On the way
she stopped in Ecuador to visit my parents, Nate and Marj,
who were missionaries there. Dad flew her to several jungle
stations, carefully skirting Auca territory in the process.
Rachel was keenly observant and asked why Dad avoided
flying over that area.
"That part of the jungle is inhabited by people who have
killed everyone from the outside world who has ventured inside
their borders," Dad explained. "If we had a forced landing
there, we might survive the crash, but we would not
survive the Aucas."
"As soon as Nate told me that, I knew that they were the
very ones God had promised to let me take His Good News
to," Aunt Rachel told me. She never wavered in her confidence,
even when tragedy struck several years later and the
Aucas speared the little brother she loved like a son.
* * *
I watched as the Waodani filled the grave. Kimo and Yowe
were watching me.
I had been near this spot years before. Kimo and Yowe
had been watching me then, too. I was only fourteen. Of
course, there was no village and no airstrip back then. We
had trekked over from the next valley to the south with a
group of Waodani.
My sister, Kathy, had decided she wanted to be baptized.
Because our own dad was dead and could not do it, Mom
suggested that Kathy choose a couple of men who had influenced
her life spiritually. Only two years younger, I decided
it was time for me to take this step too.
Excerpted from "Through Gates of Splendor" by Elisabeth Elliot. Copyright © 1981 by Elisabeth Elliot. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.