Pará, Brazilian Amazon, 1936 – The trouble began with the pounding of the drums. If Rogério had slept through them, he may not have been drawn into the mess. But drums sound of the heartbeat and he was supposed to be taking the pulse of the men for the Americans. More than the steamwhistle, the drums were what called him to work.
The day had started normally. He’d gone spritzing in the rubber fields, ridding the saplings of mandarová chrysalises, and had tended to the new arrivals by giving advice about how to hold a spade or by offering palm oil for their blisters. They were grateful for the care, for it was usually the first act of kindness they’d experienced after their long, diseased trek through the jungle to the Ford motor company hospital, where they had been probed and made to cough for signs of consumption. They had nothing out here, nothing but a thousand acres of torn up jungle for rubber fields, nothing but the steady push of the water through the sandleached hills and the blue backed tucanaré fish running in the fmornings by the banks. As far as the new arrivals knew, Rogério was their friend.
But anyone who stepped out of line he watched very closely. The night before, he’d been surprised at the rebelliousness of his tapping team and had singled out one young upstart as trouble. After they had smoked the latex late that morning and hauled the heavy black prancha balls to the rubber depository, he returned to his hut for the sake of appearances, intending to snooze shortly before going out again. He didn’t have much to offer at the moment but if he got word to the American’s assistant he hoped it was enough to avoid meeting the American himself. The gringo, with his flurries of questions and brusque manner, always made Rogério nervous, as if Rogério’s very words were dirtying an otherwise trim and proper place.
That afternoon it grew unusually cold. Rogério crossed himself and knelt briefly before the cracked image of the Virgin of Nazaré. Then he burnt some dried palm stalks and sat down on his bedroll, thinking it might not hurt to warm up a bit before proceeding back into the forest. He lay down and rested his eyes for a moment, slapping away the mosquitoes. Rogério dreamt of violent things: starving children, women without him, exits and entrances to his hut, and then trails upon trails upon trails, undulating out into green darknesses of enveloping trees, until he woke with a groan. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes to find that it was dark and he had overslept well into the night. He also heard something that felt to be coming from within, a pounding of sorts.
He cupped his hand to his ear: it could be, unless he was mistaken… yes … there they were, drums. The pulse. He snuffed out the fire, now burning hotly in the cookstove, and emptied his boots of a small beetle. He started towards the cantina, the usual place of festivities, but found that the sound was coming from somewhere behind it deep within the forest. Returning to his hut, he grabbed his kerosene headlamp and machete, and proceeded cautiously down a little known trail that wound in the proper direction.
The drums grew louder as he plowed further into the jungle. He came to the edge of an old rubber estrada that had been over-tapped the prior season, where the soil was flat and somewhat free of foliage. Tonight the clearing was filled with torches and headlamps.
He put out his own lamp, crouching low behind a bush. No one appeared to see him and he felt a kind of security in the rumbling of the drums. The onlookers must have felt the same way – the voices were loose with alcohol and lacking all discretion. He wasn’t the only one who was worried about getting caught.
“This is silly,” one of the voices was saying. “Surely they’ll hear us out like this.”
“You coward, you always think that. Anyway, we’re so far out in the forest that no one will hear us.”
“But drums carry far!”
“There’s nothing to be done. This is how they fight in their runaway quilombos, so let them have their fun!”
Next to these observers, bets were being made:
“I’ve got two on the large fighter there!”
“What kind of cigarettes?”
“I’ll take you,” another interjected. “I love menthols. That little one looks like a rascal. I think he’s good for a fight.”
“They say he’s a carioca from Rio de Janeiro.”
“No, he’s never left Pará, I’d swear on it!”
Rogério heard a few others make bets of razor blades and cigarettes, and one even made a wager of money. The stakes were the highest he’d ever seen at a local fight. The odds rolled in favor of the larger fighter, with a little help from a bookie.
The rhythm was coming from a tall drum shaped like an egg with the top cut off. Next to the drum were three men playing bow-like instruments, with gourds at the base, and bent shafts of wood connected by strings of some kind. The instruments made a nasally twang.
The onlookers parted for a moment and he saw two figures crouched down at the foot of the drum, gesturing absently into the air and scribbling signs into the dust. A plaintive wail of a song then sprang from the lips of one of the instrumentalists. Opening his arms, the larger fighter absorbed the music into him and nodded with understanding.
Rogério felt his foot tingle so he raised himself to get the blood flowing, wary of his leg falling asleep. Something told him he might need to beat a hasty retreat.
The rhythm doubled in time and a chorus responded to the singer as gods and masters and tricksters were invoked from the spirit world into the circle. The two fighters – without any cue that Rogério could perceive – then performed cartwheels, one athletic and acrobatic, and the other appearing slow and heavy.
They began a strange dance, measured, apparently out of control, but always watching the other, moving comfortably from erect stances to twisting movements on the ground. The distance between them rarely grew small enough for either to strike, but after they had scrambled nimbly around a few times, the larger of the two, dark and tall and powerful, suddenly extended into a swift kick that met his opponent’s midsection.
So this is it, Rogério thought, the fight-dance that I have heard spoken of – capoeira.
Capoeira gangs were rumored to have taken control of Rio de Janeiro, but Rogério was from a small town on the other side of the country, and Rio but a place spoken of by worldly types.
The fighters were keeping their distance and rarely strayed near enough to the other to land a real blow. He had expected the martial art to be more graceful than this display and more practical. The game also seemed rough and unpolished, making it difficult to understand whether they were following specific rules of combat or if it was a random free-for-all.
The volume of the drumbeat increased.
The men were sweating now, and the stronger of the two began adroitly closing the distance to land successive blows to his opponent, hitting him in the chest and legs. His knee bent to the side, and in a flash his foot snapped up so fast the smaller man’s head was jerked back. Just before a free hand went to the ground in a cartwheel, he bashed the back of his fist into his gut. Every strike seemed to come when it was least expected, fast and vicious. The smaller man was clearly slower, but not so sluggish as to be struck by every blow. Several of the larger man’s leg sweeps would have felled Rogério yet his opponent avoided them without so much as a glance. Then, strangely, more obvious strikes would connect with heavy thuds. It was tough to tell whether the little man was drunk or stunned, but he certainly seemed to be losing.
The rhythm continued to pace forward, unaffected by the match, the fighters equal under the rumbling beat.
The smaller man started to drag his legs and breathe more heavily. His opponent ducked into a crouch and bobbed his head back and forth rapidly, unleashing a furious onslaught of kicks and back-handed punches. He joined his feet together and leapt fully from the ground, crashing into the smaller man’s chest so fast that he landed on his feet again. Then he walked away, as if stopping the fight, and flipped back over his hands, ducked a feeble punch, and swept him so that he fell three feet to the hard earth.
“For the love of the Virgin,” Rogério whispered aloud. “If they play any louder Tanner himself will come to shut it down.”
But without the music the fight would have been different, for it was the music that distinguished them. The smaller man was moving on the beat, predictably, and the larger man was timing his movements with the syncopations, snapping his limbs in attack against the natural flow of the rhythm.
And the rhythm went on, Ba-bum-TAT-bum, and Rogério saw the weaker of the two fighters reaching for his foot, apparently in pain, and right himself to protect against yet another blow. He looked as if he was about to collapse.
Growing bolder, the larger fighter narrowed the distance between them and landed kick after kick. Confident and arrogant now, he leapt up onto his hands in an incredible display of balance and control, kicking once at the little man’s head with one of his upside-down legs. His bare back rippled with muscles as he adjusted his balance and arched his spine gracefully, eyes fixed firmly on his opponent’s movements. The crowd cheered.
“What a master!”
“It’s over now!”
What fool, Rogério thought, would ever fight with such a man?
But Rogério, like the rest of the onlookers, was mistaken about the other fighter as well. The scrappy man, seeing the distance closed and his opponent’s head near the ground in a handstand, steadied his battered wobble and suddenly ducked his head to his side, whipping his rear leg around low in a swift arc of measured power. His opponent fell sputtering to the earth of the clearing.
The men emitted various gasps and color commentary above the din of the orchestra.
“What a stingray’s tail that was!”
The blow was strong, but not so strong as to draw blood. The stronger master did not raise himself, and lay crumpled in a heap, barely moving on the brown weeds of the clearing.
This is strange, Rogério thought.
After a few moments, some of the onlookers ran over to the fighter and turned him over. He clutched his hands at his muscular neck, where dark liquid was gushing forth, making a guttural, rasping sound.
More men rushed to his side in the commotion. They tried to hoist him to his feet as the life drained from his face and his chest heaved for air. But the wound ran from ear to ear and it was impossible to fashion a tourniquet to stopper the blood. He stood briefly with his eyes ablaze before collapsing to the ground again, dragging one of his helpers down with him.
Focused on the loser, the crowd momentarily forgot about the scrappy fighter who had delivered the blow. Rogério turned his head to observe him remove something shiny from between his toes and rub it against the earth. It glinted as he tucked it into the front pocket of his overalls. A blade. The fighter signaled to someone in the crowd, spat into the weeds, and then melted into the darkness of the forest without a word.
The drums eventually stopped. The little one was declared the winner and the men initiated an argument about how to divide the winnings. The fallen fighter lay slumped in the clearing, but the gamblers were no longer interested now that he stood no chance of getting up to win back their money. One started berating him drunkenly until someone shoved him angrily away. The man bent with his hand over his mouth, his cheeks covered with gold-glowing tears in the kerosene flicker.
Perhaps a relative, Rogério thought. I must remember the face.
Rogério slinked back into the forest quietly, daring not to risk lighting his headlamp, and stuck to the shadows on the path to his hut. He went through his bedtime routine and tried closing his eyes but the sound of drums rattled in his head and the scent of kerosene had stained his nostrils. He turned over and over again in his bedroll.
The fighter’s death did not bother him, as there was nothing especially troubling about death in the camp. Death was as much a part of life as anything else, if not by violence then by sickness or beast. What bothered him was the fight itself: there was a deliberate aspect to it, as if someone had sent it spinning in motion. No one had challenged the winner for the foul play, not even the gamblers. Any other man would have had to pay for sneaking in a knife. That implied protection.
Rogério was supposed to be keeping an eye on the men for the Americans and it had happened right beneath his eyes. In this land of dark mornings hauling rubber on the trail and the chill air of the jariná huts, if you got soft you got fired. He knew he’d have to find out more. Someone else must have been behind the fight. An expediter, someone who could make things happen. Someone who had escaped his notice.
Deji Olukotun is a Brooklyn based author and lover of all things Brazilian. The above excerpt, “In the Light of the Kerosene,” is a chapter of Everyone Comes from Belterra: When America Owned the Amazon, a novel set in 1930s Brazil. For more information, visit www.returnofthedeji.com or contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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