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Old Joanna


      Old Joanna

The boitatá winked in the lowest part of the marsh. Cruz-credo. But the boitatá
was a good demon; he protected the woods and fields against fires. The old woman was more
afraid of unknown living things, sticky, treacherous, which creep noiselessly and sting,
or else jump and dig their curved claws into the flesh of mortals.
By Hélio Pólvora

A velha Joana levantou a saia de chita acima dos tornozelos mirrados e entalou-a entre
as pernas. Entrou na água e sentiu o frio subir-lhe pelo corpo. As piabas que enxameavam
à beira da fonte correram para o mais fundo. O vento agitou adiante, no brejo, as
taiobeiras que ali cresciam em moitas fechadas, de um verde-escuro de casco de garrafa,
cheias de sumo.

Curvando-se, ainda a sustentar a saia no aperto das coxas magras, onde a carne bamba
tremia em volta do osso, a velha Joana lavou a cara. Quando a superfície da água
serenou, as ondas dispersivas perdendo-se entre as taiobeiras, ela viu o rosto
refletir-se—um rosto enrugado, de pergaminho, como se feito de couro velho que
houvesse, com o passar do tempo, encolhido, formando então todas aquelas pregas.

Entardecia. Com jeito, ainda sustentando a saia para não molhar a barra, a velha
começou a vadear a fonte por uma das margens mais rasas na direção das taiobeiras.
Sabia quais as venenosas, quais as que podia cozinhar para um ensopado parecido com o de
folhas de couve. Escolheu as taiobas mansas, cortando-as pelos talos seivosos, fez um
pequeno feixe que a mão trêmula abarcava e vadeou outra vez a fonte. O vento soprava. Em
volta os matos estavam, porém, quietos, mas aquele sossego não enganava a velha. Ia
chover, com certeza. Ia desabar uma tempestade. Só não podia calcular a hora. Talvez de
madrugada, talvez pela manhã, quando o sol quisesse raiar. Era uma coisa que se sentia no
ar, no torpor da mata, no vento, nos cheiros.

Iurupari, o demônio das solidões, lhe segredava isso, malicioso. Uhm-uhm. Como se
ela, com um século de vida ou quase, não soubesse pressagiar a chegada das ventanias e
de aguaceiros. Peludinho, deitado sobre folhas secas, a língua estirada entre dentes
pontiagudos, olhou a dona que saía da fonte, mexeu-se e as folhas estralejaram. Era um
cão pequeno de pêlo farto e macio, cor do café-com-leite. Aqui e ali, no dorso, viam-se
tufos de pêlo amarelado.

A velha Joana saiu da fonte, arriou a saia e coçou um pé com o outro, para soltar a
lama do fundo da fonte grudada na sola e entre os dedos. Peludinho parou a arfar e
fitou-a, desta vez atento.

Antes, quando ainda filhote, mal saído da ninhada, chamara-se Vulcão, provavelmente
porque alguém achou o pêlo parecido com a cor da lava a escorrer de encostas. A velha
ganhara-o anos atrás, não recordava direito quantos, numa de suas perambulações pela
vizinhança, apoiada a um bordão que não passava de um galho rijo de árvore descascado.
Não gostou do nome. Vulcão? Que queria dizer? A senhora proprietária da ninhada
explicou-lhe que havia batizado o cão depois de folhear um dicionário grosso de Jayme de
Séguier com estampas coloridas. A velha soltou uma risada curta e grossa, sua maneira
predileta de encerrar conversas inexplicáveis, e acariciou o cão, que não tardaria a se
aninhar no seu colo, o focinho pressionando a barriga magra e encovada. Mais tarde,
semanas depois, uma moça das redondezas, que freqüentava escola rural e aprendia a ler
em manuais de Felisberto de Carvalho, disse-lhe que vulcão era um monte que soltava fumo,
fogo e peçonha. Peçonha? Cruz-credo. Peçonha, sinhá Joana, é o mesmo que veneno.
Arrenegado seja o demônio. Pois de ora em diante ele vai ser Peludinho. Vem cá, meu
filho, salta aqui pro colo da mamãe velha, meu amor.

Peludinho se pôs em pé, arisco, as orelhas de súbito entesadas. Você está muito
espevitado, disse-lhe a velha Joana. Ainda não é hora. Vejo que anda doido pra chegar
logo em casa e comer um naco de carne. Meu guloso, ah, ah, ah.

Os matos pareciam petrificados, o sol de crepúsculo vagaroso espiava incerto pelas
aberturas nas árvores. A velha encheu meia lata de flandres com água da fonte, ajeitou
no cocoruto a rodilha de pano e levantou o peso com dificuldade. A lata equilibrou-se na
cabeça, a água a bater de leve nas bordas. Gemendo baixo, porque estava muito velha e
cheia de macacoas, ela pegou no bordão encostado a um toco e começou a subir o declive.
Peludinho deixou-se ficar para trás, como se resolvido a dar vantagem à dona, certo de
alcançá-la, passar pelo vulto encolhido e esperar, na soleira da porta, que ela
aparecesse afinal no terreiro e arriasse a lata de água no batente, para somente então
abrir a porta da choupana e cuidar do de-comer dos dois.

O cão era boa companhia no ermo. Que seria de mim sem o meu Peludinho?, pensou a velha
enquanto arrastava os pés ladeira acima. Uma vez, antes de ter Peludinho, havia descido a
ladeira para colher taiobas, ou apanhar cascas de cedro, pedaços de cipó, trevos e
manjericão, para um banho-de-cheiro (já não lembrava mais se uma, se outra coisa) que
lhe haviam encomendado. Teve a infelicidade de ser enganada pela caapora, que vadiava
pelos matos sob a forma de um menino arruivado, com os pés para trás (calcanhar no lugar
dos dedos), todo peludo e sem penduricalho no lugar do sexo. Perdido o caminho, a velha se
descobriu em lugar estranho. Nunca que houvesse passado por ali. Aquelas árvores, aquele
mato, aquele silêncio pesado que de tão silencioso doía no ouvido, ela não os
conhecia. Sentou-se numa raiz e balbuciou uma reza. Desgraçadamente não levara pedaço
de fumo pra oferecer ao gênio travesso dos ermos e das gerais, suplicando-lhe em troca
que desfizesse o encanto e lhe mostrasse o caminho certo. A noite desceu, cobras
desenroscaram-se e se puseram a deslizar no rumo do brejo, à procura de sapos, guaxinins
e outros bichos noturnos acenderam olhos amarelados nas trevas. O boitatá piscou na parte
mais baixa do brejo. Cruz-credo. Mas o boitatá era gênio bom, protegia os matos e os
campos contra incêndios. A velha tinha receio maior de viventes desconhecidos, pegaaw6kxos,
traiçoeiros, que se arrastam sem fazer ruído e picam, ou então saltam e cravam unhas
recurvas na carne dos mortais. A velha Joana cansou-se de esperar um milagre e adormeceu.
Acordou quando a noite já ia alta, já se enchia do palor da madrugada, e viu no céu um
desfile de astros, estrelas de grande luminosidade, uma luz forte de cegar a vista,
cometas de longa e esfiapada cabeleira. No dia seguinte apareceu mais velha e mais
encarquilhada. O vestido de chita varria o chão, o rosto enrugava-se como papel bem
amassado ou couro ressequido, as mãos não paravam de tremer, o corpo magro dobrado em
dois na cintura, a bengala que tinha mais olhos do que a dona—bengala sábia que
evitava os acidentes do caminho, os tocos e buracos perigosos. E narrou sua aventura, com
especial destaque para a luminosidade no céu noturno, astros, estrelas e cometas em
procissão de gala, abrindo clareiras imensas no breu da noite.

Distribuía bênçãos a meninos e homens feitos. A velhice secular conferia-lhe o
privilégio da autoridade. Morando em choupana coberta de palmas de catulé, em terreno
cedido pelo senhor Pedro, não era vivente de ficar em casa trancada com o seu cachorro,
criando bolor. Mal o dia se inaugurava, a velha Joana, que acordava cedo, até mesmo antes
das aves se sacudirem no poleiro e esvoaçar para o chão, engolia o quebra-jejum, descia
a ladeira da pastagem, introduzia o corpo esguio entre o vão da porteira—e lá se ia
pela valeta da estrada de rodagem, onde os automóveis não podiam pegá-la desprevenida
por causa da meia surdez. O cão, depois que ela passou a ter o cão, trotava rente aos
calcanhares, raras vezes adiantando-se em incursões solitárias.

Ela era a maior faladeira das redondezas. Voltava na boca da noite, dos lados do
Ribeirão dos Cachorros, da fazenda dos herdeiros, da Baixa-Grande, da Sapucaia, de outros
lugares e propriedades que os vales sucessivos ocultavam. Trazia além da mochila de
carne-seca, açúcar, farinha, feijão e querosene, muitas novidades, notícias frescas e
saborosas que repassava na ponta da língua. Pagava as esmolas com noticiários minuciosos
da vida alheia. Antes de subir para a choupana, demorava-se na casa-grande do Senhor
Pedro, no meio da pastagem de grama rala, sentada no alpendre, a passar os fuxicos para a
comadre Maria, que raramente saía dos seus afazeres domésticos para uma visita a
parentes e amigos. Conversavam horas esquecidas. Noite fechada, a velha Joana erguia-se
com uma praga, porque sentia uma dor fina no quadril. Chamava Peludinho e subia o resto da
ladeira. O fifó tremia-lhe na mão, parecia fogo-fátuo. Pedia, nesses momentos, a
proteção divina (valha-me o senhor São Bento!), porque tinha medo de cobras,
principalmente da chamada espia-caminho ou da outra que costumava se enrodilhar na beira
das veredas para soltar o bote sobre os candeeiros, por isso chamada apaga-candeia.

A velha Joana entra no terreiro varrido, encosta o bordão na porta, atira os feixes de
taiobas ao chão e desce a lata. Depois de retirar a rodilha de pano encardido, coça o
alto da cabeça para reativar a circulação. O sangue volta a banhar o que lhe parecia a
superfície do couro cabeludo, deixando uma sensação gostosa de formigamento. Lembra-se
então que seu homem, o finado João Gomes, com quem vivera amigada muitos anos, sem
filhos, tinha o hábito de coçar-lhe a cabeça, de fingir que procurava piolhos e
lêndeas e que os esmagava com a unha grossa do dedo polegar. João Gomes, morto a facadas
num forrobodó, num sábado de Aleluia, dizem que numa cena de ciúme. Vai ver tudo isso
foi mentira. João Gomes era homem bom, festeiro porém de tino, o juízo sempre bem
assentado. Por onde andaria o espírito de João Gomes com o seu jeito ora de índio
dissimulado, ora de caboclo esperto? Para a velha Joana, ele, que nunca fizera mal a
ninguém (pelo menos, mal de caso pensado, de prevenção), estava na Terra Sem Maldade¸
a terra de Mairata. No seu pensamento ela via aquela terra como uma planície vasta no
céu, além das nuvens, uma planície coberta de flores. Na aldeia toda de casas como a
sua, feitas de varais e barro e cobertas de palmas de catulé, os que partiram deste mundo
vivem muitos felizes. Quando ficam velhos demais eles remoçam, se transformam em meninos.
E não é preciso trabalhar com a foice, com a enxada, com o machado pra lavrar a terra e
da terra tirar sustento, porque na Terra Sem Maldade as plantas crescem naturalmente, as
colheitas são sempre fartas, ninguém passa fome.

A velha Joana destranca a porta da choupana, enche o pote de barro na cozinha e espera
que anoiteça de vez. Sentada no terreiro, na pedra roliça que serve de degrau junto à
porta, ela se põe a matutar. No dia seguinte, depois do aguaceiro (porque tem certeza que
vai chover grosso, só não sabendo a hora exata em que São Pedro deve rasgar o bojo das
nuvens), tenciona sair, pegar na vizinhança a sua cuia de farinha, o seu pedaço de
jabá, o seu meio litro de querosene, a sua coité de arroz. Até o fim da semana tem
muito o que fazer. Um homem que se sentia fraco do peito pediu a bênção, ao se
encontrarem num caminho deserto, e uma infusão de folhas de embaúba, para ver se curava
a tísica. A senhora Madalena, mulher fina da cidade que passava uma temporada nos matos,
na época da colheita do cacau, queria (e a velha Joana soltou sua risada curta e grossa)
que ela lhe levasse um copo de garapa azedada no sereno, que era pra se livrar de um
incômodo. Teria, ademais, de benzer um menino, no Ribeirão dos Cachorros, com um raminho
de arruda ou alecrim. Se não achasse estas plantas, alfazema também prestava. Em seu
pensamento, sentada na pedra, com a saia de chita a cobrir-lhe os pés, a velha Joana rega
os versos contra quebranto e dá, na imaginação, os passes com o ramo de alecrim
cheiroso:

Em nome da Virgem
Quebranto, mau-olhado,
Sai-te daqui,
Que este menino
Não é para ti.

Ah, também precisa de manacá para moer bem e ensinar João Preto a tomar o
banho-de-cheiro. Ele se queixa da falta de sorte, os peixes não mordem o anzol nos
ribeirões, em tardes de sábado e de domingo, e a mão erra o tiro nas caçadas às
perdizes, nhambus, teiús e outros bichos de penas e de escamas, da terra e das águas e
dos ares.

Um bando de anuns negro-azulados passa por sobre o terreiro, por cima da choupana, e
desaparece no rumo da pastagem. A velha Joana estremece. Cruz-credo. Arreda, demônio.
Vai-te pras profundas do inferno, Belzebu. Não venhas atentar um cristão que vive no seu
canto sem causar mal a ninguém.

Os olhos da velha turvam-se. Sem saber bem porquê, o bolo na garganta rompe-se. As
lágrimas deslizam diretas pelo rosto. Ficam suspensas entre as rugas, de modo que a velha
tem as faces escuras ornadas de gotas de orvalho. De seus olhos feios, apertados e foscos,
manam gotas cristalinas.

Nesses momentos de emoção é melhor fazer alguma coisa, ocupar o corpo pra distrair o
espírito. Pensa em varrer a choupana com a vassoura de ervas agora já meio secas, mas se
lembra que isso dá azar, a sorte poder ser varrida porta a fora, abandonar a casa pra
sempre. E ela precisa ter cuidado para, ao passar da sala para a cozinha, não desmanchar
a teia de aranha. Levanta-se da pedra sentindo as pernas pesadas e dores no espinhaço.
Vai apanhar água e resolve dar de beber às flores. Cuida das flores do seu pequeno
jardim com muito desvelo: os chapéus-de-couro, as onze-horas que trepavam nas paredes
envaradas e, ao abrirem-se, mostram-lhe estar perto o meio-dia, os bogaris, os cravos, as
dálias e margaridas recebem sua ração de água quase todos os dias, ao amanhecer e ao
anoitecer. Cultiva também pés de fedegoso, de mastruz e de vassourinhas para suas
aplicações medicinais. O alecrim, bom pra benzer feridas que não fecham ou pra espantar
o mau-olhado, tinha morrido e ela precisa trazer outra muda. Molha as plantas com mãos
trêmulas, mãos que custam a segurar os objetos—lembrança de dias frios, ela
coberta de trapos a tiritar sobre uma cama dura de varas.

Agora, felizmente, tem Peludinho. Riem-se dela pelas costas. Dizem que o cachorro dorme
na sua cama, agasalhado entre os peitos murchos, duas pelancas que batem na barriga
também engelhada. Dizem que ela se priva de comida pra alimentar o cão a todo instante.
Às vezes carrega-o nos braços que é pra Peludinho não se cansar muito, não ferir as
patas nos pedregulhos. Conversam à noite, à beira do fogo, quando o sono tarda, quando
Acutipuru não põe nas pálpebras aquele peso anunciador de uma travessia até o
despontar de outra aurora. E nesses instantes ela chama Peludinho de seu filho e se refere
a si mesma como a mamãe velha.

A noite cai como desce uma mortalha: leve, tênue e no entanto definitiva. A velha
Joana entra, passa a taramela na porta e acende o candeeiro. Sua casa é um minúsculo
ponto de luz na treva do mundo. Peludinho deita-se no chão de terra batida, o focinho
descansando entre as patas que ele lambe de vez em quando com alguns ganidos. A velha
ajeita achas entre três pedras roliças que sustentam a frigideira, a caçarola ou a
panela de barro, derrama querosene sobre alguns gravetos e ateia o fogo. Sopra pra avivar
o fogo. A chama passa à lenha com facilidade. Frita carne, requenta o feijão e prepara
primeiro o prato fundo de Peludinho. Tem o cuidado de desfiar a carne-seca e misturar bem
a farinha ao feijão. O cão espera a comida de pé, junto à saia da velha, a ganir. Ela
põe o prato no chão. Coma, meu filho. Está gostoso. De tanto olhar o cão a comer,
esquece-se que também tem fome e que o feijão e a carne esfriam. Uma ave grita em cima
da choupana. Parece pousada na cumeeira, lá onde as folhas da palmeira juntavam-se pelos
talos. Arreda, rasga-mortalha, resmunga a velha metendo a colher no prato e formando um
bolo, com ajuda da polpa do polegar, que leva à boca e babuja porque os dentes não
passam de cacos enegrecidos.

O vento entra agora na casa pelas frinchas das portas e janelas, pelos buracos nas
paredes. A velha Joana sente muito frio. Lava os dois pratos, deixa em cima do fogão e
resolve transportar o fogo para o meio da cozinha. Primeiro, separa os tições
fumegantes, depois carrega as três pedras envolvidas num pano sujo. Enfia os tições com
cuidado entre as pedras, aproxima as pontas, sopra—e o fogo pega logo. A lenha se
põe a crepitar, soltando fagulhas. Lenha boa, lenha seca, vinhático. Fagulhas sobem ao
encontro do teto de colmo, apagam-se entre as lâminas ressequidas do catulé. Quando eu
morrer, diz a velha ao cachorro atento, não sei o que será de você. Eu sinto muito,
Peludinho, mas um dia dessas bato mesmo a caçoleta e me levam estirada numa rede pro
cemitério de Ferradas. Não gostam de você, pensam que não sei, pensam que não vejo,
que não escuto? Dizem que você era manso, mas comigo pegou todas as minhas manias, virou
cachorro bravo. Late pra todo mundo, mesmo pra gente conhecida e de respeito, não aceita
festas, alisamentos ou bater de dedos. Murcha logo as orelhas, a cauda se encolhe enrtre
as pernas, o pêlo se eriça todo como o de um ouriço-cacheiro. E o latido, o seu latido
fino e prolongado, meu filho, mexe com os nervos de certas pessoas que têm vontade então
de atirar pedra em você, de praticar maldade. Comigo, com a sua velha mamãe, você é um
cordeirinho, tão meigo e atencioso eu estou pra ver outro. É, Peludinho, você vai
sofrer sem a sua velha, é penoso viver.

O vinhático queima estalando. Faíscas sobem para o teto baixo, a palha já se
retorce. Cabeça tombada no peito, a velha Joana cai na modorra. Um sorriso largo mostra
os cacos dos dentes nas gengivas murchas. Agora ela anda devagar por uma campina plana. Um
homem avança na sua direção com o peito nu e arrojado, o cabelo negro tosado no meio do
pescoço e acima dos olhos, uma tanga de penas coloridas nos quadris estreitos. As
passadas firmas das pernas musculosas fazem o chão estrondar. O homem empunha um tacape e
tem o rosto severo. Chega perto da velha e se curva. A bênção, sinhá Joana. Nosso
Senhor seja o teu guia, Mairata. Porque é mesmo Mairata, o gigante ancestral. Perto
deles, iluminando a cena, o boitatá que protege a campina contra incêndios. O boitatá
solta labaredas a intervalos, primeiro piscando como uma luj na escuridão da noite,
depois deitando fogo pelas ventas como o dragão que São Jorge subjuga com a espada. Mas
a campina continua verde, verde e longa e sem fim, e Mairata ri agora, e Mairata toma o
bordão da velha Joana e atira-o longe como coisa sem préstimo, e a velha Joana anda
agora mais ligeira, mais leve, como se pisasse em nuvem, em floco de algodão no espaço,
e Mairata segue ao seu lado, os dois envolvidos pelo boitatá imenso, pela fogueira do
boitatá na campina verdejante.

Duas aves cruzam o céu negro em vôo baixo. No meio do terreiro iluminado pelas
chamas, Peludinho, vê as aves passarem rápidas, a golpes de asas. Puxam a canoa de
Tupã, que atrás de si faz o trovão ribombar e o relâmpago cavar no céu fissuras
esbranquiçadas. Tupã navega do Leste para Oeste, ao encontro de sua amada Nandecy, por
quem arde de desejo.

A tempestade desaba.

Peludinho busca refúgio na mata.

  Old Joanna
The boitatá winked in the lowest part of the marsh. Cruz-credo. But the boitatá
was a good demon; he protected the woods and fields against fires. The old woman was more
afraid of unknown living things, sticky, treacherous, which creep noiselessly and sting,
or else jump and dig their curved claws into the flesh of mortals.

Translated by Patricia Perkins

Old Joanna raised her calico skirt above her shriveled ankles and caught it between her
legs. She entered the water and felt its coldness rise through her body. The minnows
swarming at the edge of the spring hurried into deeper water. The wind rushed through the taiobeiras
up ahead in the marsh, which grew there in closed thickets of dark bottle-green, full of
sap.

Bending over, to keep her skirt pressed between her thin thighs where the loose flesh
trembled around the bone, Old Joanna washed her face. When the surface of the water
stilled, the widening ripples losing themselves among the taiobeiras, she saw her
face in reflection: a wrinkled, parchment face; it looked as if it were made of old
leather which, with the passage of time, had shrunk to form all those folds.

Evening was coming. Skillfully, still holding her skirt so as not to get the hem wet,
the old woman began to wade along one of the spring’s most shallow banks in the direction
of the taiobeiras. She knew which ones were poisonous, and which could be cooked to
make a stew like you make with cabbage greens. She chose the mild leaves, cutting their
sappy stalks, and made them into a little bunch which her trembling hand grasped as she
waded back across the spring. The wind sighed. All around the woods were quiet, but that
calm didn’t fool the old woman. A storm was coming. The only thing she didn’t know was the
exact time. Maybe in the wee hours of the night, maybe in the morning when the sun was
trying to shine. It was something she felt in the air, in the torpor of the woods, in the
wind, in the smell.

Iurupari, the demon of loneliness, whispered it to her, malicious. Hm-hm. As if she,
after living a century—or almost—didn’t know how to foretell windstorms and
thundershowers. Peludinho, lying on some dry leaves, his tongue stuck out between pointy
teeth, watched his mistress coming out of the spring; he stirred and the leaves snapped.
He was a small dog with thick soft fur, the color of coffee with cream. Here and there on
his stomach you could see tufts of yellowish fur. Old Joanna came out of the spring, let
down her skirt, and rubbed one foot with the other to loosen the mud from the spring’s
bottom that was stuck on the soles of her feet and between her toes. Peludinho stopped
panting and stared at her, now attentive.

Earlier, when he was still a puppy, hardly weaned, he’d been called Vulcan, probably
because someone thought his fur looked like the color of lava running off a slope. The old
woman got him some years later—she didn’t rightly remember how many—on one of
her walks around the neighborhood, leaning on a cane which was nothing more than the
sturdy branch of a peeled tree. She didn’t like the name. Vulcan? What did it mean? The
lady who owned the litter explained that she had named the dog after leafing through a
thick Jayme de Séguier dictionary with colored pictures. The old woman let out a short,
thick burst of laughter, her favorite way of ending inexplicable conversations, and petted
the dog, who lost no time in nestling in her lap, his nose pressing her thin, caved-in
belly. Later, weeks afterward, a girl from the area who was going to the country school
and learning to read from the Felisberto do Carvalho books, explained to her that Vulcan
was a mountain that let forth smoke, fire and venom. Venom? Cruz-credo. Venom, siá
Joanna, is the same as poison. Cursed be the devil. Well, from now on he’ll be Peludinho.
Come here, boy; jump up here in your old mommy’s lap, my love.

Peludinho got to his feet, skittish, his ears suddenly pricked. You’re too anxious, Old
Joanna told him. It’s not time yet. I see you’re dying to get home to your piece of meat.
You greedy thing, you. Ah, ah, ah. The woods seemed petrified; the slowly setting sun
peeked uncertainly through openings between the trees. The old woman filled half an old
tin can with spring water, arranged a ring of cloth on the crown of her head, and raised
the weight with difficulty. The can balanced on her head, the water lightly slapping the
sides until it suddenly stilled. Groaning slightly, because she was old and full of aches,
she took her cane from the stump where it was leaning and began to go up the slope.
Peludinho let himself fall behind as if he’d decided to let his mistress get a head start,
certain that he would overtake and pass her shrunken shape and then wait on the doorsill
until she appeared at last in the yard and lowered the can of water onto the doorpost to,
only then, open the shack’s door and take care of supper for them both.

The dog was good company in the wilderness. Where would I be without Peludinho?, the
old woman thought as she dragged her feet up the hill. Once, before she had Peludinho, she
had gone down the hill to cut taiobas or else gather cedar bark, pieces of vine,
clover and basil for a herb bath that someone had recommended (she didn’t remember any
more if it was the one thing or the other). She had had the bad luck to be tricked by the caapora,
who wandered around in the woods in the form of a red-haired boy with backwards feet (his
heels where his toes should be), all hairy and without anything where his sex organ should
be. Losing her way, the old woman found herself in an unfamiliar place. Never before had
she been there. Those trees, those woods, that heavy silence, so silent it hurt her
ears—she didn’t recognize them at all. She sat down on a root and stammered a prayer.
Unfortunately she hadn’t brought a piece of rolled tobacco to offer the naughty demon of
the wilderness and the trackless forest, begging him in return to undo the enchantment and
show her the way home. Night fell; snakes untwined themselves and slipped along towards
the marsh, hunting for frogs; raccoons and other nocturnal animals lit yellowish eyes in
the darkness. The boitatá winked in the lowest part of the marsh. Cruz-credo.
But the boitatá was a good demon; he protected the woods and fields against fires.
The old woman was more afraid of unknown living things, sticky, treacherous, which creep
noiselessly and sting, or else jump and dig their curved claws into the flesh of mortals.
Old Joanna got worn out waiting for a miracle, and fell asleep. She woke up quite late at
night; the pallor of early morning was already spreading; and she saw in the sky a parade
of heavenly bodies, stars of great brilliance, a blindingly strong light, comets with long
raveled hair. The next day she appeared older and more wrinkled. Her calico dress swept
the ground, her face wrinkled like crumpled paper or dried leather, her hands trembled
continuously, her thin body bent in two at the waist, her cane had sharper eyes than its
owner—wise cane, which avoided accidents along the way, stumps and dangerous holes.
And she retold her adventure, with special emphasis on the luminosity of the nocturnal
sky, heavenly bodies, stars and comets in gala procession, opening huge clearings in the
pitch of the night.

She gave out blessings to all—from boys to grown men. Secular old age gave her the
privilege of authority. Living in a shack thatched with catulé palms, on land
granted her by Senhor Pedro, she hadn’t lived this long just to stay at home cooped up
with her dog, moldering. Hardly had the day dawned before Joanna—who woke up early,
even before the birds stirred themselves on the roost and flew down to the
ground—swallowed her breakfast, went down the other side of the hill, slipped her
slim body through the opening of the gate, and went along there in the ditch of the
highway, where the cars couldn’t catch her unawares (because of her half-deafness). The
dog, after she came to have a dog, trotted close at her heels, only rarely going off on
his own errands.

She was the biggest gossip around. She came back at nightfall from the banks of Dog
Stream, from the inherited plantation, from Baixa-Grande, from Sapucaia, from the other
places and properties which the successive valleys hid. She brought—besides her
knapsack of dried meat, sugar, flour, beans and kerosene—much news, fresh and juicy
stories, which set tongues to wagging. She repaid their charity with a detailed news
service about others’ lives. Before going up to the shack she loitered for a while at
Senhor Pedro’s big house, in the middle of a field of sparse grass, sitting on the porch,
telling all the gossip to Comadre Maria, who rarely left her domestic chores to visit
friends or relatives. They talked for endless hours. After dark, Old Joanna rose with a
curse, because of a pain in her hip, called Peludinho and went the rest of the way up the
hill. The small lantern trembled in her hand like foxfire. At times like that she asked
for divine protection (Bless me, Lord Saint Benedictine) because she was afraid of snakes,
mainly the kind called path-finder, or the other kind which coiled itself at the edge of
the footpath to strike toward the lamp, and therefore was called lantern-dimmer.

Old Joanna entered the swept yard, leaned her cane against the door, threw the bunch of
taiobas on the ground and lowered the water-can. After taking off the coil of
soiled cloth, she rubbed the top of her head to revive the circulation. The blood started
to flow again below what felt to her like a surface of hairy leather, bringing a nice
antlike sensation. She remembered then that her man, the late João Gomes, with whom she
had shacked up for many years without children, had had the habit of rubbing her head,
pretending to look for lice and nits which he crushed with his thick thumbnail. João
Gomes: stabbed to death at a wild party one Holy Saturday, out of jealousy, they said.
Maybe it was all a lie. João Gomes was a good man, a party lover but with good judgment;
his common sense always foremost. He who sometimes acted like a furtive Indian, sometimes
like a clever half-breed—where might his spirit be wandering now? For Old Joanna, he,
who never did anyone wrong (or at least, not on purpose), was in the Land Without Evil,
the land of Mairatá. In her mind she saw that land like a vast plateau in the sky, above
the clouds—a flower-covered plateau. In the village, all the houses were like hers,
made of sticks and mud, and roofed with catulé palms; those who depart from this
world live really happily. When they get too old they revert to youth, turn back into
children. And you don’t have to toil with scythes, with hoes, with axes to work the land
and pull your living from the land, because in the Land Without Evil plants grow
naturally, harvests are always plentiful, no one goes hungry.

Old Joanna unbolted the door of her shack, filled the clay pitcher in the kitchen and
waited for night to fall. Sitting in the yard, on the rounded stone, which served as her
front step by the door, she set herself to pondering. The next day, after the rainstorm
(since she was sure it was going to rain cats and dogs; she only didn’t know the exact
time when St. Peter would tear open the belly of the clouds), she intended to go around
the neighborhood and get her gourd of flour, her piece of dried meat, her half-liter of
kerosene, her porringer of rice. Before the weekend she had lots to do. A man who was
feeling weak in the chest had asked for her blessing, when they’d met on a deserted path,
and for a drink of embaúba leaves, to see if it would help his consumption. Lady
Magdalena, a gentlewoman from the city who was spending some time in the country at cocoa
harvest time, wanted (and here Old Joanna let out her short thick burst of laughter) to be
brought a glass of sour garapa in the open air, which was to help her get rid of a
small indisposition. Besides this, Old Joanna had to bless a little boy over by Dog Stream
with a switch of rue or rosemary. If she couldn’t find those plants, lavender would do
just as well. In her mind, seated on the stone, with her calico skirt covering her feet,
Old Joanna recited the verses of protection against the Evil Eye and, in her imagination,
slowly waved the switch of fragrant rosemary:

In the name of the Virgin,
Evil Eye, bewitcher,
Begone from here;
For this little boy
Is not for you.

Oh, she also needed some manacá to crush well and teach João Preto to make a
herb bath. He was complaining of bad luck: the fish didn’t bite his hook in the streams on
Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and he missed his aim while hunting partridges, nhambus,
lizards and other legged, feathered and scaled animals of the earth and the waters and the
air.

A flock of blue-black anuns passed above the yard, over the shack, and
disappeared towards the pasture. Old Joanna started. Cruz-credo. Begone, devil! Back to
the depths of hell, Beelzebub. Don’t come around trying a Christian who lives in her own
corner without causing harm to anyone.

The old woman’s eyes grew cloudy. Without quite knowing why, she felt a lump rise in
her throat. The tears didn’t slip right down her face. They stayed hung between the
creases, so that the old woman’s dark cheeks were adorned with dew-drops. From her ugly,
narrow, lusterless eyes oozed crystalline drops.

At times of emotion like this it’s better to do something, occupy the body to distract
the spirit. She thought about sweeping the shack with the broom of half-dry herbs, but she
remembered that that was bad luck; good fortune might be swept out the door, might leave
the house forever. And she had to be careful, going from the front room to the kitchen,
not to tear the spider web. She got up from the stone, her feet feeling heavy, pains in
her spine. She went to get water, and decided to give some to the flowers to drink. She
cared for the flowers in her little garden with much diligence: the thistles, the
sunflowers which climbed the woven twig walls of her shack and opened to show when it was
nearly noontime, the bugaris, the carnations, the dahlias and daisies—all
received their ration of water almost every day, morning and evening. She also grew
foul-smelling heliotrope, mastruz and broomweed plants, for her medicinal purposes.
The rosemary, good for blessing wounds which wouldn’t heal and for scaring away the Evil
Eye, had died and she’d have to get another seedling. She wet the plants with trembling
hands, hands which were hardly able to hold things; a reminder of cold days, her body
covered with rags, shivering on a hard bed of branches.

Now, fortunately, she had Peludinho. They laughed at her behind her back. They said the
dog slept in her bed, snuggled up between her shriveled breasts—two loose folds of
skin which flapped against her just-as-withered belly. They said she went hungry in order
to feed the dog without fail. Sometimes she carried Peludinho in her arms so he wouldn’t
get too tired or hurt his feet on the stones. They talked at night, beside the fire, when
sleep wouldn’t come, while Acutipuru hadn’t yet weighed down their eyelids with that
heaviness, sign of the airy voyage until the break of another dawn. And at such times she
called Peludinho her son and referred to herself as his old mommy.

Night fell like a descending shroud: light and thin, but all the same definitive. Old
Joanna went in, latched the door and lit the lantern. Her house was a miniscule point of
light in the darkness of the world. Peludinho lay down on the floor of beaten earth, his
nose resting between his paws, which he licked now and again. The old woman set some
sticks of wood between three rounded stones which supported her skillet, saucepan or clay
pot, poured kerosene on some wood chips, and lit the fire. She blew to get it started. The
flame easily passed to the wood. She fried meat, heated up some beans and prepared
Peludinho’s deep dish first. With care she tore the dried meat into bits and mixed the
flour and beans well. The dog stood waiting for his food, whining. She put the dish on the
floor. Eat, my son. It’s good. Watching the dog eating, she forgets she was hungry, too,
and the beans and meat were getting cold. A bird screamed above the shack. It sounded like
it was roosting on the ridgepole, where the palm leaves came together, stalk to stalk.
Begone, shroud-tearer, muttered the old woman, putting her spoon in the dish and making a
ball with the aid of her thumb, which she raised to her mouth and sucked, since her teeth
were just blackened chips. 

The wind now entered the house through the cracks in the doors and windows, through the
holes in the walls. Old Joanna felt very cold. She washed the two dishes, left them on top
of the stove (a platform of baked clay supported on four props) and decided to move the
fire to the middle of the kitchen. First she separated the smoking embers, then carried
the three stones, wrapped in an old cloth. She wove the embers carefully among the stones,
placing them end to end; she blew and the fire soon caught. The wood began to crackle,
shooting out sparks. Good wood, dry wood, vinhático. Sparks rose to meet the
thatched roof, died among the dried palm leaves. When I die, the old woman said to the
dog, I don’t know what will become of you. Sorry, Peludinho, but one of these days I’ll
kick the bucket and they’ll carry me stretched out on a hammock to Ferradas cemetery. They
don’t like you, they think I don’t know it; do they think I don’t see or hear? They say
you used to be good-tempered, but here with me you picked up all my ways and turned wild.
You bark at everyone, even people we know; you won’t stand for partying, sweet words or
petting. Your ears soon droop, your tail shrinks between your legs, your hair all stands
on end like a porcupine’s. And your bark, your fine long bark, my son, gets on the nerves
of certain people who then want to throw rocks at you and other such bad things. With me,
with your old mommy, you’re a little lamb; I’d like to see another doggie so sweet and
dear. Yes, Peludinho, you’re going to suffer without your old lady.

The vinhático burned, snapping. Sparks rose toward the low roof; the thatching
was already twisting. Her head sunk on her chest, Old Joanna fell into a doze. A wide
smile showed the stubs of teeth in her withered gums. Now she was walking slowly on a very
wide, very green prairie, a flat prairie. A man was coming towards her with bare, bold
chest, his black hair cropped halfway down his neck and above his eyes, a loincloth of
colored feathers around his narrow hips. The firm steps of his muscular legs made the
ground shake. The man gripped a sacrificial club, and his face was stern. He came near the
old woman and bent over. Blessing, siá Joanna. Our Lord be your guide, Mairatá.
For it was really Mairatá, the ancestral giant. Near them, lighting the scene, was the boitatá
who protected the fields against fire. The boitatá shot forth flames from time to
time, first winking like a light in the darkness of the night, then exhaling fire into the
wind like the dragon St. George tamed with his sword. But the prairie continued green,
green and long and endless, and Mairatá laughed, and Mairatá took Old Joanna’s cane and
threw it far away like a useless thing, and Old Joanna now walked easier, lighter, as if
she were stepping on clouds, on puffs of cotton in space, and Mairatá followed at her
side, both of them enveloped by the huge boitatá, by the boitatá’s blaze
in the verdant prairie.

Two birds crossed the dark sky in low flight. From the middle of the yard, lighted by
the flames, Peludinho saw the birds pass quickly, their wings beating. They pulled Tupã’s
canoe, which brought thunder resounding behind itself and made lightning carve pale
fissures in the sky. Tupã sailed from east to west to meet his lover Nandecy, for whom he
was burning with desire.

The storm came crashing down.

Peludinho sought shelter in the woods.

Hélio Pólvora is a well-known Brazilian writer who lives in Bahia. He is
the author of Os Galos da Aurora, O Grito da Perdiz and O Rei dos
Surubins, among other books. He can be reached at hpolvora@uol.com.br
  and powder@e-net.com.br

 


Glossary:

Taiobeira: bushy tropical herb with pointed leaves.
Peludinho: "hairy little thing".
Cruz-credo: exclamation of horror and aversion.
Siá: title of respect originally given by slaves to their mistress.
Taiobas: leaves of the taiobeiras.
Caapora: man of the woods in Indian legend, backwoods spirit.
Boitatá: fire-throwing spirit in the shape of a huge bull with reddish eyes.
Comadre: name by which the mother and godmother of a person call each other.
Mairatá: head of the pantheon in Tupi Indian theology, often equated with Christ.
Garapa: a drink made from sugarcane juice.
Manacá: a medicinal shrub.
Nhambu: a tailless tropical bird.
Anum or anu: a tropical bird with a long dropping tail and 4-toed feet, two toes
pointing forwards and two backwards.
Mastruz: a plant of the nasturtium family with medicinal properties.
Acutipuru: Indian spirit of sleep; also a kind of arboreal forest rodent with a
hairy tail.
Shroud-tearer: common name for the owl.
Vinhático: a kind of tree with excellent yellow wood.
Tupã: Tupi Indian designation for thunder, used by early Jesuit missionaries to
signify God.

 

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