Russas, Ceará state, in Northeastern Brazil is the largest dwelling place in the Jaguaribe Valleythe largest dry/running river in the world. It was to Russas in 1965 that the Peace Corps (Voluntários da Paz) sent Suzanne, a registered nurse, and Thomas Belsky, her husband and enthusiastic ne'er do well, for their work in health and community development. The following could only be true, the names may have been changed to protect my memory.
Mid-day in the sertão the heat saturates everything. Time has taught all living things beneath that excruciating sun to surrender: birds to the cool shade of the mango trees; lizards into the deeper crevices of the rock pile; dogs vacate the public square and collapse beneath a twisted porch or under a shade providing form, be it a construct of God or man. As for man himself, him we find invariably horizontalin a hammock with a toothpick, remembering a last morsel of food or love, or with a book of verses over which he dreams often reading aloud to the family dog curled in a half circle directly beneath the slow sway of the hammockmuch as the sertanejos envision God semi-involved in the affairs of man. If a particular man is doubly blest, he reclines beside an angel that refreshes his lemonade and gently messages the frown from a brow creased with the struggle of gaining the proverbial daily bread. During this time of blissful domestic tranquility there is rarely a sound save those God would insist upon to tune the heartstrings of his children: the breeze shifting the foliagea concerto of sorts with a bass of palms and a vast array of strings and winds stirring in a composition beyond our meager comprehension; the delicate leaves of jacarandá, or mamão (papaya) or the maracujá (passion fruit) whose flowers fill the air with the sweet scent of dessert.
On a good day in the sertão everyone succumbs to the joy of surrenderthe intervalo, siesta, or mid day break is as natural here as darkness following the sundown.
Into just such a peaceable kingdom came anathema one particular typical afternoon. I was gently dozing in the hammock, my wife was in a more profound sleep, thankful for the respite from the culture shock of daily dealings with being a semi-person in the inescapable grasp of machismo at the health post. Poor dear, she enjoyed her dreams so much more since arriving in Brazilthe foreign language had almost silenced her; incomprehensible exclamations in a crippled Portuguese left Suzanne helpless amongst those she longed to help.
Her sparkling white nurse's uniform and untamable fiery red hair coupled with the overt machismo of the town doctor were a tragic formula for her time in Russas. The ironic and perhaps most painful part for her was that the caboclos, the peasants, loved her. They flooded to the post with babies and children and withered adultsall suffering the deprivations that put flesh on the statistics of poverty and underdevelopment. They came to the health post to consult and touch the Americana; and Suzanne gave her heart and information and tears to them and they felt her concern for their plight, and they came in greater numbers than the day before.
The doctor in charge of the post, a handsome and proud man, solved his dilemma of what he obviously felt was an undermined machismo, by giving this brilliant nurse full and exclusive control of the garden and plants that surround the health post. She was presented with a rusted watering can and told to not wear her bright white uniforms to the center again. She had just gotten word of her "promotion" that very afternoon we speak of.
So now she slept a tenser than normal sleep, but a welcomed respite from the agonies of being non-understood, misunderstood and standing outradically standing out in a sea of brown skin, dark hair and dark eyesa magnet of focus: red hair, fair freckled skin, amber eyes and a roaring intelligence suppressed behind a tongue that wouldn't obey the minds' racings, and all this in a medieval social order that prized obedience and acceptance above all else in the order of things. So now she slept in her bed, perhaps dreaming of CaliforniaSanta Cruz by the sea and her mother, and I dozed in my hammock with a book of verses spread across my chest to the easy drift of the hammock. The sun was full high and hot when the spell was broken.
Gently at first I heard a voice amidst the plodding muffled sounds of an ox-cart being drawn over the cobbled streets. The creaking wheels and the sing song incantations of the driver grew louder as they approached our house. The sound of the wheels stopped; the slow rhythm of the hooves on stone stopped, and the voice grew louder, bolder and rose quickly to an angry curse. I was aroused to the event directly across from our door, and knowing this to be an uncommon disturbance I ambled to the front window and witnessed a scene that was worthy of a snapshot or two.
Grabbing my camera, I stepped out into the oppressive heat. Already there were a few barefooted urchins gaping at an ox that decided to take a rest-quit pulling the crudely constructed solid wheeled cart, and in so doing had upset the plans of the drivera man, perhaps thirty-five years of age who could have been a mere twenty, such being the effect on the physiognomy of those without regular nutrition.
He was of spare build as are so many of these sertanejos and upon his head wore a small brimmed woven palm hat that covered his eyes and laid exaggeration to a longish noseoutstanding for the growth of beard that covered his entire lower face with exception of a pair of pink lips that curled and hurled curses and threats at the huge beast who, with its legs folded comfortably beneath gazed ahead, looking neither left nor right, but straight ahead, paying no heed whatsoever to the vituperative of the enraged driver.
The afternoon reverie being broken, observers continued to arrive engulfing the central attraction with the street kids in their ragged semi attire inching closest to the huge head of the ox whose horns formed a near perfect half circle. The beast refused to move despite pleadings, yells threats and the snapping of the whip from the driver and a number of supporters in the meandering on lookers.
The whip tasted the ox's hide behind the protruded rib cage time and again, still no movement, not an inch. In frustration the angry driver kicked the monster in the hind parts, ran to the front and grabbing the reins hauled and pulled, straining and cursing the reluctant beast. It was here that one of the two town priests arrived and moved to center of the action. Padre Segundo, as he was called, was a large, portly, kindly man with a slight limp and a bit of a speech impediment that lingered between a lisp and a stutter. He wore a loose fitting noticeably wrinkled black robe that seemed to absorb even more of the heat than we of a less godly condition might tolerate.
Padre Segundo criticized the bad language of the driver in front of the present women and children; reprimanded him for driving his beast through town during intervalo when tradition had it that all God's domain surrendered to the mid-day heat. The poor driver, angry and embarrassed, asked for understanding of his situation, and frustrated turned from the padre leaving him to perform his magic, prayer or whatever divine or secular influence he could conjure to raise the stubborn ox.
Now a murmur went through the crowd amidst a low current of tittering and eyes that looked away when the priest's disapproving gaze focused in their direction. The question now became obvious to those gatheredcould this representative of God resolve this earthly problem that had disturbed the tranquility of a quarter of the town. Padre Segundo thought for a moment then moved his portly body to stand in front of the immobile, striking beast of burden.
Leaning forward the padre, his ruddy face circled by the beast's horns, seemed to whisper into the face of the animalgiggles issued from the onlookers causing a few wise cracks and curt scoldings from those bound to defend the faith even in this ludicrous circumstance. The padre urged, but the animal refused to stir, blinking its huge sad eyes and chewing rhythmically on nothing apparent. The crowd became more animated, almost able to forget the heat of the day for the drama unfolding.
The black robed vicar sprinkled beads of water that seemed to appear miraculously upon the recalcitrant beast's dusky dome, uttering words of compassion and urgency. In vain, all was to no avail; the bullock stubbornly remained stationary, as if it had reached some predestined conclusion to the afternoon's events.
The padre stood back, stroking his chin and fingering the hem of his garments, beads of sweat formed rolling zigzag down the brow and off the tip of the slightly bulbous nose. "Ca-ca-cast n-not th-thy p-earls to the the s-ss-swine," he stammered, and hitching his garments turned resolutely and made off toward the house of the Lord. But the energy of his teeter implied an imminent return.
The Ox's Supporters
Kicking, swearing, and the snap of the whip amidst several stones hurled at the beast all failed to dislodge it from the position of repose it had settled into. From amidst the suggestions that were barked from the cacophonous crowd of now well over two score citizens, there stepped forth to where the distraught driver sat under the blazing sun in his patched and re-patched cotton-sack shirt, torn and soaked with the perspiration of futility, a youngish man with the dare-devil impetuosity of inexperience.
Asking and receiving permission from the perplexed driver, the young interloper cautiously approached the hind quarter of the ox and set a crumpled paper directly beneath an opening angle where the hind haunches met the dusty cobblestones. Placing the paper into the crevice, he proceeded to strike a stick match and quickly move it to the paper where it ignited, sending him falling backward grasping onto his leather cap in anticipation of a sudden burst of movement from the subject of all this commotion, disturbance, abuse and comic solemnity.
The fire caught and the ox's head made a sudden jerk forward; the hind quarter lifted perhaps four inches, but in that precise instant of elevation, the beast's tail swept down into the crevice and caught the ignited paper flinging it out into the street where dazed onlookers guffawed in glee as the defeated young man rose and retreated to his position amongst the ranks of observers amid more cheers and hoots.
The ox, which now had numerous supporters in the gaggle that surrounded it, had immediately re-settled into the position of total rest, one leg having been slightly adjusted for comfort, and the tail, which had undone the fire, switched lazily across its broad backside, perhaps dislodging a fly or two. But the beast was quite serious about not moving, and resettled into position like a mass of concrete poured to stay put despite repeated pleas, kicks, curses, whip snaps, hurled stones and holy water, unholy water and of course fire.
Suzanne had joined me by this time and had witnessed the commotion that had disturbed our entire two block area, and despite the blazing heat she made her way to my side urging me to step farther back from the prostrate animal who was nonchalantly chewing a cud or something. Now came again the Padre Segundo followed by his superior, dressed in flowing white robesPadre Humberto, the moral authority of the community, whose rest had also been fragmented by the hoots, hollers and curses from the street.
The street, which now was alive with people, horses, goats, a few pigs, numerous chicken and dogs all the elements that comprise an unexpected gathering in a small town two hundred miles and two hundred years removed from civilization as we know it. The figures of the two padres were a striking contrast to the collection of residents: Padre Humberto was dressed in a flawless white robe with red and gold trim and ornaments dangling from the draped garments.
The first padre wore black in contrast and was heavier set in stature, lacking the grace and self confidence that emanated from his superior who was essential trim, well composed with quick penetrating eyes that twinkled with a sparkle suggesting wit and a ready sense of humor. Padre Humberto, through presence alone, had quieted the crowd and recognizing an opportunity to impart God's wisdom into daily doings of his flock, suggested that the wisest creature amongst all there gathered was the sorry beast of burden that lay there the object of threats, curses and physical abuse.
"Furthermore," continued the charismatic emissary of the Lord, "the beast was, in its unreasoned intuition, obeying a natural lawa law of God, much the same as all of you, here gathered, had obeyed that unwritten law when, as is customary in all Brazil and in all enlightened centers of God's Universe, work ceases and man and beast alike seek repose and the cool, refreshing comforts of the mid-day intervalo or siesta.
"This beast was made to violate this natural lawGod's lawfor this sorry individual who owns it. Why his man could not surrender to the heat of the day as we all do, to rest and continue in a few hours his worthy efforts to earn his daily bread, is a secret he alone knows. But here we are all gathered beneath this blazing sun looking at a beast who may in fact be a messenger from abovea messenger sent to teach us that there are laws written by manand there are laws unwritten, even unspoken, but laws nonethelessthat resound with the commonsensical clarity only Nature and Nature's God can prescribe.
"And so are we here gathered; should we now all go home and leave this man, this brother in Christ, with his beast to resolve their difference in their own good time? Or shall we draw from this providential occasion a less than great but significant victory to the glory of God and man as the steward of all the earth and the beasts thereon? I, having been disturbed and now moved to this pitch of religious oratory and fervor, believe we must proclaim for a victory for God and the Church!"
Now the crowd grew silent; all eyes were focused on the glistening white robed priest as he made his way to the head of the ox and reaching over to his companion Padre Segundo, Priest Humberto gathered a few drops of perspiration that were cascading from his underling's face and deftly transferred them to the brow of the beast with that pert, assuring little snap of the wrist common to the faithful, and, making a circular motion above the animal's head he whispered some words, words heard only by the priest and perhaps his unlikely subject. This done, Padre Humberto rose and strode to position himself directly behind the beast where he stopped and indicated with a raised hand for all present to observe, and step back, which was done, but not without numerous murmurings and questioning glances all about.
Padre Humberto than bent over and delicately lifted the animals tail in his left hand and gingerly tapping dust from a segment, like a plutocrat might flick the ash from a great cigar, proceeded to place the tail between his teeth where prompt and pronounced pressure was applied. No sooner had we realized what the priest had done than the huge beast rose like a whale rising from the depths of the sea, rose from the dusty street snorting unceremoniously, creating a wave of commotion in its wake.
The ox rose, the priests stood majestically, the driver bounced against the sides of the cart as it was dragged by the enraged beast from one side of the street to the other amidst the flurry of scattering onlookers. The panicked driver was again shouting and swearing at the crazed ox, brandishing his whip and futilely trying to gain control of the careening semi-round wheeled cart as down the road, this way and that, it bounded.
The people scattered instantly upon the full realization that the beast had risen; they dove into doorways, climbed into opened windows and scampered up trees. Children screamed and hysterically stumbled in all directions, women crossed themselves and gathering infants and children to their side, hurriedly made toward whatever safety was available. It was as if a minor apocalyptic event had transpired.
In perhaps one minute all was transposed- dogs barked nipping at the startled beast roaring in all directions and no direction; the crazed driver held on to his cart while trying to gain some control, chickens squawked and scattered, pigs squealed and made wayall was turmoil exceptexcept for Padre Humberto who stood smiling at his handiwork of confusion and resolution. Padre Segundo nodded approvingly and surveyed the site of the miracle.
Amazingly, I thought, no one was trampled, run over, mauled, or otherwise violated in the mêlée. Suzanne and I made our way into the house, hurriedly bolted the door and ran to the window to see the ox and cart zigzag down the street across an empty lot and into an alleyway where it was lost from sight. Padre Humberto and his assistant smiled at each other and tapping dust from their garments turned and made their way slowly back to the rectory behind the church.
I turned to Suzanne who had a smile wrapped in disbelief covering her entire person.
"God works in mysterious ways doesn't He, Crusader Rabbit?" she jibed at me as I resettled in my hammock.
"He sho' nuff do, my luv, he sho nuff do. Now how bout some of that lemonade for the man of the house," I smiled back
You can email the author, Tomas Belsky, at email@example.com