(The Brazilian Backlands)
In 1934, the young warlord, Epitácio dos Santos, then only in his mid-twenties but already a strong force in the mountains of central Bahia, granted to Domingos Pereira, a gunman who had served his family for many years, the use of certain lands in the far western part of the state. The only condition of the grant was that every five years Domingos and his heirs would sign a writ acknowledging Colonel Epitácio’s ownership of the land.
Old Domingos moved west to the land with his three young sons. It was rough country, with cattle spread over a vast area and scattered fields farmed by sharecroppers. But Domingos was a tough man and raised his sons to be tough.
As long as Domingos was alive, there was no problem with the signing of the writ. Every five years a messenger would arrive from Colonel Epitácio. It was a long ride, sixteen days by horseback and, later, three or four days by jeep over a round-about patchwork of bad dirt roads. Old Domingos would greet the messenger as an honored guest, ordering a young steer slaughtered, and sending off boys on horseback to call in the hands, sharecroppers, and the few neighbors in that sparse country. He would sign the document right away, then would sit in the shade of a mango tree and chat with the messenger, asking about happenings back east. When the steer was roasted, the gathering would eat and drink cachaça until long after the sun had set, and the kerosene lanterns flickered late into the night.
The first time after Domingos’s death the messenger arrived on horseback; he received no greeting. Leonidas, the eldest son, walked out of the rough, rambling palm-thatched house that was the family’s headquarters. He was a glowering, powerful man with thick black hair, built like a bull but with a way of holding his arms slightly forward and away from his body, like an ape, as though his arm muscles were too large to let his arms hang straight.
“What do you want?” He spoke as though the messenger were not expected, although he and his brothers had been watching the calendar for weeks.
“I’m here with Colonel Epitácio’s papers.”
The second brother, Mauro, had come out of the house. He was as tall as Leonidas, but not as thick and muscular. At first glance he was handsome—- a high forehead, light brushed-back hair—- until the messenger looked in his eyes. Those eyes were arresting—- perhaps fascinating to young girls and other prey. After a moment the messenger tore his own eyes away from Mauro’s eyes; he had seen something crazed and cruel there.
“Listen…” Mauro started. His voice was higher than expected, crazed in the same way his eyes were crazed. Leonidas held up his powerful hand and Mauro stopped talking.
“Dismount,” Leonidas said, “and come inside.”
The messenger got down from his horse and stepped through the low door of the house. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness inside. Then he saw the dirt floor, the rough square table, the small rawhide-covered stools, the bare adobe brick walls. There was nothing here to show that these men were vice-regents over a vast domain of lands, nothing of the cool grace of Colonel Epitácio’s house back east. But the messenger was used to such places where men of wealth lived in stark, rough houses, almost devoid of furniture, working in old rough clothes, sleeping in hammocks.
“Let me see the papers,” Leonidas said.
The messenger extracted two pieces of paper from his leather pouch and handed them to Leonidas. The powerful hand took the papers, looking—the messenger thought—as though it would like to crumple and crush them. But Leonidas held the sheets close to his face and laboriously read them.
There was a coughing in the corner and the messenger became aware of another man hunched on a stool in the shadows against the wall. The man spat on the floor. This was the third brother, Antenor. In four years he would be dead of tuberculosis, leaving an infant son.
Leonidas laid the papers on the table.
“You have something to write with?” he asked the messenger.
“But…” Mauro started.
“Be quiet,” Leonidas said.
The messenger took a fountain pen out of his pouch, removed the cap, and handed the pen to Leonidas. The big hand clutched it and slowly, painfully, scratched out a signature at the bottom margin of the second sheet.
“Mauro,” Leonidas said.
His brother came reluctantly over to the table, as though pulled against his will, a roped yearling. He stood for a moment, then moving quickly, grabbed the pen and wrote his name.
“Antenor,” Leonidas said.
The third brother got up from his stool and moved languidly over to the table. He was emaciated, half a ghost already, indifferent. He signed, his signature a smooth, well-formed flourish.
Leonidas picked up the papers. “There,” he said, holding them out to the messenger. The messenger folded them carefully and put them in his pouch.
There was no offer of a meal, of cachaça, or coffee. Not even a cup of water.
The messenger nodded to them, turned, walked out of the house, mounted, and rode away.
The second time following the death of Domingos, when the messenger arrived, the brothers refused to sign.
“What am I to tell Colonel Epitácio?” the messenger asked.
Leonidas spat on the ground.
Five more years passed.
Again a messenger arrived, a new messenger. Again the brothers refused to sign.
The messenger spoke up, reminding them of the original grant, of the law.
Leonidas brought up his huge right arm and swung it, backhanding the messenger’s face. The messenger reeled and fell against the wall, his face bruised, his mouth bleeding.
“Tell your boss that,” Leonidas said.
Another five years passed.
A third messenger came. He was a man of courage, capable of taking care of himself, but he hesitated as he rode up toward the house. It was mid-morning and a small group stood gathered in front of the house, talking about work. They turned to look at the messenger. Leonidas was there, and Mauro, and half a dozen of their men, men toughened by rough land and cattle and keeping sharecroppers in line.
“Leonidas Pereira?” the messenger asked, dismounting.
Leonidas nodded without speaking.
“I have a letter from Colonel Epitácio,” the messenger said. He pulled it out of his pouch, unfolded it, and handed it to Leonidas.
Leonidas took the letter and read it. He read slowly, painfully, sounding out the words with his lips. He would not have listened to the words of a messenger, but the written words of the Colonel still had the power to hold him. He finished the letter and handed it to Mauro.
Mauro read quickly, restlessly. An expression of irritation crossed his face. He crumpled the letter and threw it on the ground.
“He thinks he can scare us?” he said.
“He writes the truth,” the messenger said calmly.
Mauro moved forward rapidly as if to hit him, and the messenger thrust up an arm to protect himself. His arm brushed against Mauro, who recoiled. Leonidas stepped up and grabbed the messenger, then swung his fist and hit him in the stomach. The blow seemed to let loose deep anger in the brothers, and they both closed in on the messenger, hitting him until he fell. Leonidas kicked him, and would have kicked him again if one of his own men hadn’t held him back. Leonidas looked down at the injured figure on the ground, grunted, then turned and walked back into the house. Mauro spat once, then followed his brother.
Silence hung like mist in the cool, high-ceilinged library of the old mansion. The dark red floor-tile glowed. A beam of sunlight fell from one of the tall windows across the dark red floor.
“I have been patient with these people long enough.”
“You have twenty years before they gain rights to the land, Colonel,” his assistant said. “Fifteen have already passed.”
“You think it’s the land I care about?” The Colonel turned and called to his son, who was seated at the far end of the room.
“Amado, I want you to take care of this.”
His son stood up. He was of medium height with dark hair and eyes and light brown skin.
“As you wish, Father.”
“Take as many men as you need.”
The Colonel turned and walked out of the room, his boots hard against the tile floor.
Tonico saw the jeep winding down the rough dirt road into the valley from the east. He could hear the distant whine of its motor, the pauses as it shifted gear. Automobiles were still rare out here and his seventeen-year-old heart beat faster with excitement. And fear. There was always fear there.
“What is it?”
It was the rough voice of his Uncle Leonidas, who had come out of the house behind him.
“A jeep, tio.”
“I can see that.” His uncle stood, looking sullenly up at the road, powerful and strong. For all Tonico’s life, this man had been the strength and power of the family. Tonico depended on him and was afraid of him. Not the way he was afraid of Tio Mauro, who might strike out any time at anyone like a cold blade—- like the blade of the knife he always carried in his boot. Tonico feared Leonidas as one might be afraid of a huge mountain that shadowed one’s home, making it small and insignificant.
“It means no good,” Leonidas said. “Go call Mauro and the men.”
The boy started around the house to call his other uncle, but the sound of the approaching jeep had been heard, and he met his uncle and five men coming in from the field. Mauro pushed Tonico aside and walked over to Leonidas. They watched the jeep in silence.
“Some bastard coming from Epitácio,” Mauro said after a moment.
The jeep had reached the large wooden cattle gate that blocked the road. The jeep stopped, its motor idling, and a man got out of the driver’s seat, opened the gate, stepped back to the jeep.
“He’s alone,” Mauro said softly.
Leonidas grunted and turned to the men.
“Go back to work,” he said.
The men moved off, reluctantly, held by curiosity but unable to disobey Leonidas’s order. Tonico stayed where he was.
The jeep was drawing closer now. It came to a stop about twenty meters in front of them. The motor switched off, and the stranger got out.
Sometimes Tonico dreamed. He wouldn’t have let his uncles know, but he dreamed. Not usually sleeping, but in the day, pausing over his hoe in the fields, or in the evening, sitting in the kitchen and watching the fire on the open clay stove. Things his uncles would not understand.
They were not clear dreams. They were vague, touching an emptiness that Tonico did not know how to describe, but that was sometimes suddenly, terrifyingly there.
Somehow the stranger fit into these dreams. He hadn’t been there, then suddenly he was, as though he had always been. He was ordinary looking enough, friendly and open-faced—dark eyes, light brown skin, a little better dressed than the men Tonico knew. It was nothing special, yet the stranger was there, fitting somehow into the dreams.
“Who are you?” Tio Leonidas was saying.
“Amado dos Santos,” the stranger said lightly. “Epitácio’s son.” He came forward and held out his hand in greeting.
Slowly, reluctantly, Leonidas’s huge hand reached out to take the stranger’s. They shook hands. The stranger turned to Mauro, and Mauro also shook hands, but Tonico could sense the hate in him, as though by touching the stranger he was touching a poisonous snake. Then the stranger reached over and shook Tonico’s hand, and Tonico felt warmth and peace there.
“I come from my father about the land.”
The stranger was seated on a stool at the rough wooden table, Leonidas and Mauro seated across the table from him, Tonico leaning his stool two-legged against the wall.
“Our land,” Mauro muttered.
The stranger turned, looking briefly at Tonico, then at Mauro. He had dark, clear eyes that seemed to look through one.
“Is it?” the stranger asked, his voice calm, almost gentle.
He and Mauro looked at each other, Mauro tense, defiant. Then Mauro suddenly lowered his gaze and his body shuddered, as though he were cold. Tonico had never seen his uncle lower his eyes before anyone except Leonidas. He colored, sensing Mauro’s humiliation. Then he sensed something else emerging from the humiliation, a snake sliding out of the broken, plowed earth, waiting to strike. But Mauro did not yet lift his head.
“My brother means that we have worked this land most our lives,” Leonidas said. He shifted his big frame on the wooden stool. “It would have no value without what we have done.”
The stranger nodded, not so much in agreement, Tonico thought, but just acknowledging that he had heard. “No one says that you have to leave the land. Only that you respect the agreement your father made with mine.”
Mauro’s head shot up. “Who is your father to….”
“Silence,” Leonidas commanded, his huge hand lifted.
The room fell silent. A tense silence. Outside Tonico could hear the chirp of insects. In the room he could hear breathing—Leonidas’s heavy breathing, Mauro’s sharper and shallower, the stranger’s gentle and calm. And his own breathing, Tonico realized, half-suspended, and his own heart beating.
“What do you want from us?” Leonidas finally asked.
The stranger took out a folded sheet of paper. He unfolded it and laid it flat on the table, smoothing it with his hand. A strong, able hand.
“All of this,” he said, making an inclusive motion, “was given to you by my father. His only condition has been that you acknowledge that. Three times you have refused to do so. This time he wants you to.”
Again there was silence.
“My brother and I will discuss this,” Leonidas said.
“I don’t believe there is anything to discuss,” the stranger answered.
“Nonetheless,” Leonidas answered, “we will discuss it.”
“All right.” The stranger stood up. “I’ll wait outside.”
The tense silence remained in the room after the stranger stepped outside. From his stool by the wall, the boy watched his two uncles still seated at the table. To them, he knew, he was essentially invisible, and he preferred it that way. To be noticed by his uncles, he had learned long ago, often lead to unpleasant results. He sat quietly on his stool.
Leonidas motioned to Mauro and Mauro stood up and walked across the dirt floor to the open door. He looked out, then turned around and came back.
“He’s over by the jeep,” he said.
Leonidas nodded. Mauro sat down again, and leaned forward, his forearms on the table.
“Why did you say we’d discuss it?” he demanded, his voice querulous. “Why didn’t you just tear it… ”
His words drifted off like wind hitting against the mountain of his brother’s bulk. Leonidas sat silent for a moment.
“You’re always in a hurry,” he said at last, looking at his brother. “Why are you rushing?”
“If you don’t do a thing right away… if you think about it… sometimes you don’t do it.”
Leonidas stared at his brother. His face was expressionless, yet Tonico felt scorn underneath. Except when his bottled-up rage broke loose, his Uncle Leonidas never did anything impulsively. If he set on doing something, time and delay made little difference to his will. The thing would get done.
“We have discussed this,” Mauro went on. His voice was high, emotional. “If we sign now, we’re just giving them more time. Do you think they want us on this land? If we hold out a little longer, they’ll have no claim.”
Leonidas nodded. “We didn’t know he would send his son,” he said.
“What difference…” Mauro started to say, but then broke off. He stood up suddenly and walked over to the door, looking out. When he turned back into the room, his face was transformed—thinner looking, the jaw muscles tensed, his eyes bright but narrowed.
“You should see him standing there beside his jeep,” he hissed, “the filho de papai. It must be nice to be the Colonel’s son, to never have to sweat your hide off over a piece of stinking land….”
He sat down. Leonidas said nothing.
“You’re thinking,” Mauro went on, “he’s the only son. You’re thinking that if his father dies without an heir, the matter will be tied up in the courts for years, like it always is… that nobody will give a damn about this land way out here.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Leonidas said.
Mauro laughed, straightening himself on his stool and pushing back slightly from the table. The two brothers stared at each other.
Through the open door, Tonico saw the stranger come into view, walking toward them.
“He’s coming back,” he said.
The stranger stood in the doorway.
“We will call you when we want you,” Leonidas said, rising to his feet.
“You’ve had enough time.” The stranger’s voice was quiet, firm.
Mauro stood up rapidly. “Enough time!” his voice was pitched high. “Enough time for you to….”
The stranger only glanced at Mauro, then looked at Leonidas.
“You know you need to sign…”
What happened seemed to Tonico to happen very slowly, though it took only seconds. It seemed to him that he had always known it would happen, that it had been set to happen from the beginning of time and yet, strangely, that he could have stopped it if he had wanted to, if he had only known how.
Mauro snaked his hand down to his boot. It came up sharply, holding the naked knife, striking quickly and silently toward the stranger’s ribs. The stranger began to bring his arm forward, but too late, and Tonico saw the stranger’s deep, clear eyes looking at him—- at Tonico. And Tonico saw in those eyes a deep desire to forgive, waiting for him—- waiting for Tonico—- to accept being forgiven.
Leonidas had gone out and given the men tasks that would keep them far from the house. But the brothers waited until it was dark before they took the body out of the house, Tonico helping them to carry it. Fiddling with the keys, swearing under his breath, Leonidas got the motor started and jerked the jeep forward, turning and heading out the gate they held open for him, switching on the lights and moving up the slope eastward, as the stranger would have done were he driving himself home.
Tonico walked back to the house with Mauro. His uncle did not speak, but Tonico sensed anger, bitter hate, churning in Mauro, turning inward before—sometime, but not tonight—it would spew out again. His uncle went off toward the back of the house and Tonico went into the room where he—Tonico—slept: a barren little room with a dirt floor and a single wooden window, closed against the night air. He dropped into his hammock and lay looking up into the dark.
Though he had held the dead body in his arms, he had an odd sense that the stranger was alive, those clear eyes looking at him, that he would see him again. He shook himself with a slight shudder. He would dismiss the stranger from his mind.
So he did. Leonidas returned before daylight. No word was said but Tonico knew that somewhere, far from their land, the jeep would be found. There would be no body.
Murder in this rough back country was common. Murderers were seldom discovered, seldom punished.
All that day and all the next and all the weeks to come Tonico fenced the stranger out of his thoughts, not letting him into any corner of his mind. He rose early, went about his work, spoke little, obeyed his uncles. He was as he had always been. Except the nights that he awoke sweating from a dream, hearing the hooves of the warlord’s army sweeping across the land.