AN EXCERPT FROM THE NOVEL:
Sudden beauty. The sky erupted crimson, aflame for as far as anyone could see. The great movement of day becoming night took place across a landscape filled with hushed and breathless whispers. The Mato Grosso was subdued by its humid kiss. Bahia surrendered. Amazonas rejoiced a thousand miles from the sea raging with life in verdant groves and in flying and running things that have managed to elude the touch of man for all these years. They alone were truly wild. Somewhere up the street a phantom drummer pounded out hot batuques that ricocheted off walls and cascaded down in a mesmerizing brew. A dancing woman lured with her rolling hips silhouetted by flare from the lights–beads of perspiration dancing on her breasts. He looked right through her. Tarisco was full of nervous energy, he had places to go. Tonight he waited impatiently for money. The weight of the old .45 caliber Taurus automatic in the holster he had specially made that he stuck under his belt inside his trousers beneath his coat dragged at him. It was a tool he had become accustomed to, but tonight it irritated him. The saints were restless.
As nightfall saturated the land with deep indigo all the creatures found their places. Those that were hunted scurried through the jungles of Amazonas or across the boundless grasslands of the Mato Grosso in terror paying little attention to the rubber plantations that had rotted in the humid air and been crushed eight decades ago by the anxious growth of a hundred varieties of plants and trees that had only waited patiently for the men to pass. Even the magnificent houses of the fazendas, the estates, witnessed their own end strangled by vines as thick as a man’s waist, buckled by roots too vivacious to be kept underground, infested by crawling things more numerous than all the people of the earth. The hunters had yellow eyes. They were full of life. They danced on the million leaves, touched down across a hundred thousand branches and spoke fluently to all their kind in the language of animals that humans had thankfully forgotten. Life was in motion intertwined with the endless landscape and it kept all things changing in constant evolution. In other places men had become complacent, they had decimated all the predators, tamed the rivers until now they trickled through cement corridors no bigger than a doorway, cowered in air conditioned shelters pretending that nature was under control and would never rise again to challenge their lordship. But it only waits for them to pass, for them to fulfill their moment in evolution and move on into memory. Nature waited and watched. Above all was the feeling of being watched. In the cities and jungles of Brazil there were eyes everywhere.
Tarisco Sivuca leaned up against a plastered over brick wall that was so moist with humidity it was in danger of collapse at any time. He glanced sideways down the narrow glistening street and saw children in a ragged group at the end practicing their samba steps silhouetted by a street lamp. He had been there. The sounds of their voices chimed with recognition. His pale linen suit was a mass of wrinkles that had become pressed into it by sweat within an hour of putting it on. Underneath he wore a sparkling white sleeveless undershirt, nearly new, that contrasted with his nut-brown skin in the low light under which he stood. A sheen of perspiration was on his face.
His blue eyes could not be explained. Tarisco defied description. He thought of himself as indio prêto, a black Indian, but was most likely to be referred to as escuro–black with Caucasian features and especially so because of his eye color. None of it meant anything to him because as the saying went, “a poor white is black, but a wealthy black is white.” He was finding success where many had failed so it was said of him now that he “used to be black”.
He was completely at home in the slums of Rio called favelas, especially Rocinha where he had spent his elusive childhood with 200,000 others. Fleeting memories were all that remained of his youth and only images of climbing the hill above sheet metal and cardboard houses where he and his friends had the finest view in Rio De Janero hinted that he was ever young at all. From on high they could look down on the Corcovado and imagine themselves luxuriating on Copacabana beach, or Ipanema or even on the Avenida Rio Branco where colonial buildings still hovered as ghosts filled with the echoes of black slaves and the Portuguese. Gleaming automobiles paraded past. The hand of the night caressed his cheek languidly as he heard the sounds of the favelados that wafted down the hillside into the street where he stood waiting. He had watched the tin and paper become cinder block and red brick as the inhabitants slowly gained title to the land where they had lived since 1896 and marveled as city services began to appear just as he escaped. He always returned though, because there is no escaping where the heart is.
The bitter repression of a rural rebellion in the Nordeste eight years after the emancipation of the slaves in 1880 spawned the favelas of Rio. The army swollen with bluster and bravado, its ranks bolstered with blacks and mulattos, many former slaves, reigned terror in the Guerra da Canudos against its own people. It was an insidious test of loyalties, of slave against slave. When the bloodletting was exhausted soldiers returned to the civilized towns finding again, as soldiers often do descending like seed pods dispursed by far blowing winds, that there was no place for them in peace. They wandered from central Bahia to the capital to demand their pensions and when they were not forthcoming, camped near the army headquarters. On a nearby hillside grew the favela bush, which bore a cooking spice native to their Nordeste homes, and the camp became known as the Morro da Favela. They never left. Their spirits linger still. The soldiers passed from memory, but the favelados were born of desperation. Cariocan blacks and other ex-slaves appeared and blended in to the city of the dispossessed where industrial scrap, oil drums and anything that was useful fashioned shelters. Whether they imagined them temporary or not became lost in time, but as Tarisco stood in the humid warmth of the night there were over four hundred neighborhoods like Rocinha with names such as Hurry-up-hill, Sky Gardens and Hill of Hope. Favelados numbered over one million as migrants from all over Brazil created shadow worlds of their rural life with all the social intricacies and their religion–Macumba. To the Marajá, the bureaucratic fat cats, they were cheap hands and dancing feet. To themselves they were desperate, inexorably caught up in the struggle to survive.
He knew his roots, but held it within himself even as he grew older and the knowledge no longer had any importance and never told anyone. It was a matter of honor. This quality he had learned in the streets when he was too young to remember, (but every instance breathed with him), and therefore the incident always held some unreality that bordered on the transcendental. Tarisco was around six years old when he received his confirmation. At that time age had little meaning and things were measured in terms of will to survive or not, which he and the other free children he ran with all seemed to know instinctively.
They had stolen a piece of fruit from a seller’s stall on the boulevard. It was not that they were hungry, though that was more often the case, but that they had to constantly test the envelope so when push came to shove they would know exactly where they stood. It was a common occurrence for the shopkeepers and vendors who were plagued by homeless children with nothing to do other than scratch out a survival and nowhere to go other than the streets. Brazil was home to six million such children that it enclosed within its cocoon of wildness edged by out of control urban centers on the brink. They were pivetes, “little farts”, perhaps because it justified their abuse by making nothing of them. Tarisco was not so fast and struggle as he would his little legs just could not generate much speed. The grocer, who was standing nearby, calmly pulled out a short length of wooden doweling he kept at hand for just such occasions and swatted him across the back of the skull with a loud, hollow crack that caused passers-by to momentarily look up in realization somebody else was on earth. Tarisco tumbled over next to the cardboard boxes that stank of rotten papaya crushed near their bottoms and settled there unconscious with blood flowing down the back of his small head. After the first shock of the sound no one paid any further attention to him and he lay there as if refuse.
All the other children, who were older than he and more experienced in the etiquette of the streets, huddled across a small plaza and anxiously peered at their fallen comrade from around the corner and through the legs of people walking by indifferently.
“Ayee…He’s got blood on him!” One exclaimed.
“Shut up!” Cried the oldest in controlled fury.
Another quietly and somberly began praying to the Macumba spirits. “Eleg…ba…open the door for Ogún…”
“He’s dead,” came the whisper.
“The Orixás help those that help themselves.”
“Shut up! He’d not dead!”
Their faces were of hardened adults cloned on scared and bruised young bodies and their mouths hung open in dismay showing brown and cracked teeth. The grocer, who had a bald spot on the back of his head, was not a large man, but none the less a man who had reached maturity and had acquired a comfortable layer of fat around his middle by the good fortune of his work that placed him in the proximity of food all the time. A formidable enemy. And so it was the great shock when he was suddenly overwhelmed by the pivetes, who in their frenzy brought him crashing down into the elaborate displays of mangos, onions, cassava, tomatoes, cherries, peppers, apricots, tangelos and eggplant that worked in their favor. Everything flew high into the air like a tossed salad as he wiggled against mashed fruit and struggled with the little farts two on each arm and each leg while the oldest, the strongest held him from behind around the neck. The others busy lifting up Tarisco and shunted him from the scene above their heads as if he were being evacuated from a field of battle.
The one boy remaining, the strongest one who held his forearm against the vendor’s windpipe so that both knew he, as small as he was, could crush it with one final push, bent close to the man’s ear and seethed. “Remember me!”
His fury was the spice that the mulatto boy dipped into when he needed extraordinary virtuosity. He did not believe in the Orixás or the saints of the church because he could not hold them in his hand and no matter how many times the Father had tried to explain the concept of faith to him, he could rely only on himself. In his right hand was a piece of broken bottle that he always kept in his pocket. He had found it at the beach one day. It was pale green and had three sides, two of which were sanded dull by years of ocean sand washing against it, but one side was still sharp with a vicious point. The scintillating sparkle from the sand had revealed it to him and that was the only faith he knew. The mulatto boy brought it up against the man’s cheek.
“Remember me.” He said as he cut a three-inch gash into the grocer’s flesh, and then ran off across the plaza as fast as he could.
“That pivete cut me!” The grocer yelled from out of the rubble of his meticulous displays clutching his cheek and screaming after him in disbelief. “You little son of a bitch!”
Beneath the hill of the Rocinha Favela he felt whole perhaps as in no other place on Earth. He was not a piveteany longer. The image in his mind was that of a tempestuous misfit who had trapped himself in a complex chrysalis seemingly impossible to escape from, yet because of that would be many times more beautiful emerged. It wasn’t as if he’d arrived, he wasn’t there yet, but undeniably he was on his way. It was something so tangible he could touch it and for the first time in his life he was buoyed by hope. Soon, if everything went well, he would be a Bicherio, a big boss, one of the chosen who ran the Jogo De Bicho, the fanatically popular numbers racket based on animals that ran rampant out of Rio and across all Brazil. He already had a network of runners, aviõezinhos, “little airplanes”… pivetes who would do anything for him because he had been confirmed and was one of them no matter how hard he tried to distance himself from them. He also sponsored a Samba school, a fact that added much to his prestige in the neighborhood and it was the one link he had to the legitimate world that lay outside the favela for when Carnival exploded there were television cameras everywhere and everyone knew which samba school was his. He was riding high on the back of life, except for one thing. Valdemiro Veloso.
Tarisco stood on the corner because of Veloso, he breathed because of Veloso and all of his profit and his position in life were because of Veloso. He financed a samba school, but Veloso owned whole favelas running in sewer pipes, water and electricity when the city would not. He was cursed with the luck that had brought him this far, but it was his own ambition that would create the crowning achievement of his life. Then he would have nothing to do with drugs again. That was Veloso’s domain and he had never wanted entry, yet in the favela it was his only ladder and he would rather have been dead than worked hand to mouth his whole life and at the end be as poor as at the beginning. He, too, had been somebody’s aviõezinho. It was always the great conflict between the rich and the impoverished that fought inside him, he longed for the space and time that money bought while at once appalled by it’s unjustness. The whole thing was epitomized by the sole ownership of the vast majority of wealth and resources in Brazil by a very small minority, mostly white, he even now after so many years could hardly bring himself to say it. Brazil was a white country, but he “used to be black”, so it didn’t matter. It was popular opinion that everyone had the opportunity to make good, that in the market economy all men could be kings, but he knew there was not enough to go around.
Although he gloated silently within himself when he considered his foresight in organizing the pivetes into a network of runners, for he could accomplish many times what any other Veloso operation was able to do. It gave him time, almost like being wealthy, in which he could talk to the spirits and sort out the more important things of life.
Tarisco was more apprehensive than usual as he waited impatiently for the moneybag because he had seen a bad omen on entering the favela. A vulture perched high up on the hill that seemed to be waiting too and he would have gone to the Mother of Saints to be rid of it, but did not have time. Veloso would meet him later. There was not a great sum involved, but it was significant and especially so in a favela. He had always trusted the pivetes who worked for him implicitly and consequently never had one of them steal from him–and they were paid well. Tonight he was apprehensive; the usual ease with which he carried himself through the streets of Rio was missing. The man nervously fingered the cool, blue steel of the gun stuck awkwardly in his trousers beneath the wrinkled coat.
Without turning he knew the boy was there because nobody could approach that he did not perceive and so he continued to watch the samba dancers in silhouette as if he were alone.
“They’re dead,” came a small, breathless voice.