I was alone at my sister's funeral. Only I and the cemetery workers -- a gravedigger and a bricklayer, a spot of wet mortar by his feet. This is, I think, the price one pays for living ninety-odd years without getting married, without having children, nephews, grandchildren.
When you do this, your funeral becomes a social failure. Mine, for instance, would be even worse. She wouldn't be there to attend. "Sad and evil," someone once told me, "is the man for whom no woman weeps." I guess some women would have wept for me.
But I outlived them all.
Does it make me a sad, an evil man? I guess it does, in some sort of way. When my time comes (and it cannot be that far away) I suppose the world at large won't even notice. Or, it will notice only when the smell gets too offensive. I can almost see: the police putting the door down to get to my decadent corpse.
It cannot take long, now. My sister was two years younger, for God's sake.
After the funeral I went to the cemetery administration, to ask if there was something to pay for -- I thought there would be.
"Usually, we would charge you for the bricklayer's work," said a young man, his close haircut and bright, silly eyes telling me that he had just been released from military service. Bright, silly eyes: one of those poor bastards who fall for the Country-Honour-Duty brainwashing bullshit that all armies in the world like to use. Of course. They have to convince the kids there are things worth dying for.
"But," he continued, "I phoned Town Hall, and they say you won't have to pay. They checked your name, sir, and found out you are on the War Veterans list."
War Veterans! Don't have to pay taxes. Not even the burying of close relatives, it seems.
"Have you seen action in Italy, sir?" the boy asked.
"I wasn't in the World War," I said. "I fought in the Revolution of '32."
He just stared at me. Blankly.
I decided I wouldn't leave the graveyard so soon, and, saying no word at all, turned my back to the kid and returned to the small streets amidst the graves and tombs.
No one remembers the Revolution of '32, I told myself. It was a silly thing, to do that small war, to raise against the Vargas dictatorship the way we did. Damn, later people would vote for Vargas!
Some even said that the Revolution had been a revolt of rich, bored men and idle Law-School boys. And do you know what? They may even be right.
The other states wouldn't support Sãa Paulo's fight for a democratic Constitution. We were doomed from the very beginning, and no one cared.
It had lasted only four months. It left less than a thousand casualties.
So, why should anyone remember that?
Because, I told myself, you were there! Because it's not important if there was one casualty or a thousand or a million, when you see men dying by your side in the trenches. When you hear the screams, the blast of machine-guns, the whistle of a plane dropping a bomb.
When you feel the gush of blood.
Then there was something, not a sound, but the merest suggestion of a sound at my back. So, I remembered.
We had orders to hold a position at some sort of ghost town among a range of small hills, far to the north.
I didn't, at the time, even know if the town had a name. Later we find out which name it was, but there was none in my orders, I feel quite sure about it. Only a position on a map.
The only solid structures we found there were the crypts of the cemetery -- most of those were cut from rock, marble and granite, and with no marks or names whatsoever.
The homes that served the living (when there were any living, perhaps several decades before) were of wood, planks and boards crumbling and crushing at the slightest touch. All woodwork was infested with termites and maggots.
Only the stone graves remained, untouched and unspoiled.
We were supposed to establish a camp there, perhaps a full base. There was not too much strategy on it, just the idea that it was north, and Vargas was in Rio de Janeiro, and Rio stood to the north. So we started to occupy the graveyard. To turn the crypts into strongholds. To dig trenches amidst the tombs.
It was sort of a surrealistic task: to turn marble miniature-churches and hollowed faceless stone angels into weapons and ammunition deposits; to dig trenches into cemetery soil. Sometimes a man would find a bone, a yellowed and empty-eyed skull, a broken ribcage or an incomplete leg. It seemed that not every citizen of the dead town did have the honour of being buried in a monument of stone; there were many in common ground.
Sometimes there were golden teeth, a ring, locket, necklace or breast pin. When the finding of those "treasures" came to my knowledge, I would order the jewelry to be buried again. I guess I should have thought of confiscating the goods for the treasury of the Revolution, but it was a romantic era; we were fighting for Right and Law and Justice, and we wouldn't resort to the plundering of the dead.
I already said the place was in a range of hills. What I didn't say is that the hills were overgrown -- with flowers, and trees, and grass taller than the tallest of my men. Some of them were afraid of meeting jaguars, snakes or anteaters (some said that the claws of an anteater could tear a man apart), but all we had were small monkeys, harmless little lizards, lots of small, singing birds, rodents and owls.
Only one owl, to tell he truth.
And there was the mist, of course. In the hours just before dawn, the clouds would almost touch the ground and any light more than twenty meters away would become invisible. It was like been under water, the gray, immaterial gauze turning into droplets of dew at the contact of our clothes and skin, over the leaves of trees, soaking the soil and releasing the strong smell of fertile ground.
When the sun appeared, the mist would get as low as it could, descending into the trenches, hiding holes and roots and stones, making impossible to any man to see his own ankles and feet. It was like walking in the clouds. It was a beautiful, but also dangerous, hour. A man could fall into a trench or grave or snake den and end up wounded, poisoned, with a broken bone or something else.
Something else happened three days after our arrival.
The kid's name was Seixas. His father was a Portuguese engineer, hired to work in some railroad. The point is, old Seixas was also an anarchist, and after the aborted military revolt of 1924, he had seen himself in a hot spot. So, "to cleanse the family's name," the boy Seixas joined the brave army of Sãa Paulo in the fight against Vargas and for the Constitution.
I have to say that there were no witnesses to what actually happened. All the men I came to question afterwards could give me only hints -- sounds -- impressions.
The impression was of a shadow, floating for a moment above the patch of misty, revolved soil Seixas was treading. The sound, the one of a scream. A surprised, frightened man's scream followed by a splashing of water. As for the hint . . . the hint was of some sort of fighting, a short struggle quickly subdued by unnatural silence.
Four other soldiers ran to the spot from where the scream had come. They couldn't see anything in that direction but trees and grass and tombstones. The air was clear and limpid. It was just after dawn, and the mist was clinging closely to the ground. Four soldiers ran, and the first to reach the spot stumbled and fell, just to jump to his feet at once -- it was as if he had hit a rubber surface -- crying:
"Dead! Shit! Seixas is DEAD!"
The other three men arrived just after that, and I came after them. The surge of activity made the mist at the spot swirl and rise, dispersing itself and showing a puddle or pool of stagnant, stale water, black with rotten leaves and the dirty fur and feathers of dead rodents and birds. Lying in this pool was Seixas, not dead, but unconscious.
Lying beside him, a grinning, yellowed human skeleton.
Trying to remove Seixas from the puddle, we noticed that his trousers were smeared with blood. Upon close examination, it was discovered that some flint of bone -- a fingerbone from the skeleton -- had scratched the poor man's thigh and cut deep into his scrotum, lacerating a testicle. The whole thing was a real mess; the pain must have made him faint.
As for what happened, we deduced Seixas was walking by the graveyard when, not seeing the pool -- the mist was concealing the ground -- he just stepped right into it. Perhaps by stamping into loose, rolling bone, he had lost balance, falling right over the skeleton. The wound by the fingerbone was due to sheer misfortune, we thought.
Our medical officer, Captain Villas-Boas, had Seixas removed to one of the largest crypts of the graveyard. Inside of it there was some sort of huge stone coffin or casket, a sarcophagus if you like, very heavy and with a plain, straight lid. We put a blanket upon it, and Seixas on the blanket. Villas-Boas went to work.
"That sickly water went into his system," the doctor said. "I don't know if I can help him fight the infection."
"Give him your best," -- this was my silly, my useless answer.
It was late afternoon, almost evening, when I heard the shots, two of them, coming from somewhere close to the center of the cemetery. I went there, as fast as I could, with Captain Villas-Boas by my side. We both thought it was some sort of accident, a man injuring himself with his own rifle, perhaps.
Of course, if it was an accident, why two shots? But we considered this only later, when we found Corporal Andrada aiming his gun to the top of the crypt where Seixas was resting. Andrada was getting ready for a third shot.
"What the hell is this?" I demanded.
Upon seeing me, he raised his open hand to his brow at once, poising the gun parallel to his left leg. But I found the salute halfhearted.
"There is a tearshroud nesting above that tomb, Major," said the corporal. "It's an ill omen and spells bad luck for Private Seixas."
"The tearshroud," said Villas-Boas, interceding for the boy, "is, if I'm not mistaken, a small species of white owl. Some people, mainly in rural areas, think it brings death."
"Is it so? Superstition is a poor motive for waste of ammunition."
"It is not superstition, sir, if I may say so," babbled the corporal. "I had an uncle . . ."
"All right, kid," I told him. "I'll let it pass. This time. But keep your ammo for the Federal troops. Someday we are bound to meet those who remain loyal to Vargas, and they will spell death to us, much more than any white owl of some godforsaken country. Do you understand?"
"Well . . . Yes, sir, Major."
"Good. Now, go and have some dinner. It'll be your watch quite soon, I believe." Indeed, I didn't have the slightest idea of who would be in the next watch, but I wanted to bring Andrada back to more down-to-earth concerns. "What did I tell you? Go!"
This time he made a more convincing salute, then left.
"Tearshroud, you say. A owl that foretells death."
Villas-Boas smiled. "Not an uncommon belief."
"In a cemetery? Quite a late omen, I'd say."
He smiled again.
"What are the boy's, Seixas, chances?"
The smile vanished.
"Not good. There are signals of an infectious process at its first stages. I'm not with him right now 'cause I really don't know what else I can do. I cleaned the wound the best I could, but . . ."
"All right," I sighed. "I guess I understand. Stupid thing to happen, to stumble upon a skeleton and die for it."
We remained in an awkward silence for almost a whole minute. Then Captain Villas-Boas coughed and said, "Would you like to know why the owl is called 'tearshroud'?"
This was my time to smile. It was a lazy, weary smile of mine.
"I guess, well, yes. I'd like to know."
"Then, come." We walked a few steps towards the crypt, and then the doctor said, "Andrada is a lousy marksman. To miss at so short distance."
"Perhaps the nest is inside the ceiling of the crypt," I suggested. "The thing is all cracked, you know."
We were now by the door of the tomb.
"Look," I said, pointing to a big crack, a hole, at the angle where both sides of the roof met the front wall. There were no sign of bullet marks around the hole, but, even at dusk, we could discern some straps of dry grass showing up through the aperture. "Must be the nest."
"Good," said Villas-Boas. "If we can scare the owl a little . . . make it fly . . ."
"You will understand the name of the owl."
As two children playing in a garden, we collected a few stones and debris from the ground around us and started throwing them against the edges of the aperture and, a little after, right into it. For a few moments all we heard were the stones hitting and bouncing inside.
Then came the cry. It was not a piping; it was not a tweet or a chirp. It had nothing to do with music, not even with the mournful note of the common owl. It was a bass, deep, deafening scream. If any parallel with human sounds can be made, I'd compare it to a painful cry, a sound made of equal parts of hatred and despair; it ached in my ears, but at the same time kept me frozen: I wanted to raise my hands and block the sound, and I just couldn't.
Then the thing flew -- it dived upon us, dropping my cap with its beak. A little after, as the cry subdued, I understood the name of "tearshroud." 'Cause when the owl flapped its wings, they produced a peculiar sound -- a coarse noise, like the one made by some piece of heavy, rustic, strong cloth when it is mercilessly torn apart.
"Damn, doctor! I think you said 'little owl.' This one . . ."
"Rather large, I agree," Villas-Boas said. "But there are men taller than two meters, bulkier than one hundred kilos, aren't there? This must be some sort of bigger specimen."
"A giant white owl."
"'Giant' is a sort of exaggeration, I'm afraid. But quite big, yes. Will you command the men to kill it when it returns?"
"No," I said. For some reason, the idea of deciding anything about the owl made me feel uneasy -- a poor prospect for a man who was supposed to send men to battle and death. "Let it live. It does no harm. And," I added, as if to justify myself, "we cannot have the luxury of wasting ammo."
I didn't liked the "agreed." I was Major, he was Captain; a medical Captain, with no combat experience or any real authority whatsoever. I didn't care if he would "agree" or not with my decisions. It was preposterous. It was starting to make me feel anger, rage almost. The fact that we were in a voluntary army, the fact that he was my friend, nothing seemed to mean anything at the moment (not for me, at least). All that I could see was a relaxation of discipline. An intolerable breach of protocol.
"Your agreement was not required, doctor," I said, trying to conceal the uneasiness that clung in my chest behind a casual tone, "and is not necessary, either. The men will obey my orders because these are my orders, not because they 'agree,' Understood?"
"Yes, sir, Major," he said, and moved into the crypt to see his patient. As he answered my question, he didn't look me in the eyes.
Look me in the eyes. The owl had done it. I didn't notice it at me moment, but when it flew down to attack my cap our eyes were level for the slightest fraction of a second. A quarter of hour after the incident, the image reached my conscious mind, and began to shine inside my head.
"To shine." That defined it. Or perhaps, "to jump" -- as if coming out of nowhere. I'd be talking to one of the men, or checking some of the tombs-turned-deposits, or supervising the trenches, and then . . . the bird's eyes. Two circles of white feathers, feathers so thin as to resemble cotton fibers, or some very delicate fur. Contained by these furry margins, polls of yellow, almost brown liquid, as stale and stagnant as the puddle wherein Seixas had fallen. And the center: dark. Lightless. Brightless. Opaque. Infinite.
The image kept haunting me from time to time till I went to my tent. There I had a deep, dreamless sleep. As dark and empty as the center of those stale, noxious pools that were bird's eyes.
I have said that I had no dreams that night. It is not utterly true. Just before dawn, I think I saw something, perhaps someone -- a woman -- very close to me.
"You are welcome here," she said, before I was fully awake. "Welcome to stay." When I started up she was no more, of course.
"This graveyard shit is getting on my nerves," I said to myself as I walked to the fireplace where the coffee was boiling. Where had I read it before? Man goes to graveyard, where beautiful ghost-girl invites him to stay. Hideous twist by the last line, all in italics. Some English popular short story, I bet.
It was already old by 1932.
Villas-Boas was leaving the crypt. He looked haggard; I guess he did spend the whole night there by Seixas side.
"I think you told me it was useless to stay there," I said to the doctor, after greeting him. Curiously, my uneasiness towards Villas-Boas had passed.
He shrugged. "It is. His scrotum is already black and bloated, and there are signs of suppuration in the penis. It's going too fast! If we were closer to some real town, I'd say to send him to a hospital."
"Well, we are not."
"I know. And he cannot be moved, anyway. With the wound that he got . . ."
Then I heard a car parking at the graveyard gates. One of the two sentinels posted there came running towards me.
"Message from Sao Paulo, sir."
"Is there a courier in that car?"
"Okay. Bring him here. I'll talk to him."
The courier didn't have much to say, however. Things are fine in Sao Paulo, sir. Morale is high, sir. The press supports the Revolution, sir. Yes, sir. No, sir. I traveled for almost a week to get here, sir. I almost got lost, sir.
For short, I dismissed him very quickly. Then I opened the letter and read it.
"What is it?" asked Villas-Boas.
"We will have to dig trenches."
"But we already are . . ."
"There's going to be more. And deeper. And better. And stronger."
"What do you mean?"
"The message: the governors of Minas Gerais and Mato Grosso are going to remain neutral in the war. The other states are not going to help us. Sãa Paulo fights alone."
"And this means that . . .?"
"Can't you see, doctor? Without help, the Revolution is doomed. Vargas and the Federal troops are going to crush our forces. Till yesterday, this place was supposed to be a base for further attacks and incursions to the north. Now we cannot attack anymore. We were here to establish a bridgehead. Now we have to make a stand."
It meant, of course, the digging of more trenches; the preparation of traps; the enlargement of the security perimeter. Our scouts would have matracas with them, wooden devices that, when "played," produced a sound very similar to the one of a machine-gun burst -- but with no bullets, of course. I was afraid that the mist, the woods and the fear of an attack would cost me a few more men, but nothing really serious happened. Just a couple of sprained ankles and one snake bite, but no deaths, no defections. After all, were would the men go to?
That night, the cry of the owl -- the bird did come back, claiming its nest in the hole at the top of the big crypt -- was different. It was not an irrational shriek of anger anymore. There was music in it. The sound was almost melancholic, but not exactly . . . There was something beautiful, hopeful even, vibrating just below the surface, like a complex tapestry of colourful undertones.
In a word, the bird seemed placated.
This new music changed my memory about the owl's eyes. I said before that they had impressed me as a pair of noxious pools, with black, lightless hollows at the center.
Now it was different. The new recollection was of pools of something like amber, dark gold or jade, even; in the center there were circles of shadow, yes, but of a peaceful, joyful darkness, wherein flickered sinuous, cold sparks of fire and life and -- how can I explain it? -- sadness and pity, but both feelings mixed with something else, something different . . . some restrained hope, I think, some tentative joy.
Next morning, Private Seixas died.
He cried, wept, whimpered and screamed as a flogged dog, a forsaken child, a whipped woman and, finally, as a mad, sick, dying, desperate man. The walking down of this path of sound and sorrow took him every minute, every single second of his last five hours of life.
[how can tongue be dry if saliva was thick and foaming?]
At times he seemed to speak, but we couldn't understand what he was saying. His tongue was swollen and dry, his saliva was thick and foaming, and all he could do was to utter idiotic, meaningless sounds. He died this way, screaming, feverish, bathed in cold sweat, despair written upon his very eyes.
After the death, the question of what to do with the body arose. Captain Villas-Boas wanted to preserve it at the best of our not-so-good abilities, and send the corpse to Seixas' family as soon as possible. But a sergeant raised the point that Seixas father was an anarchist and an atheist, so the family wouldn't care about the body. For all I knew about atheism or anarchism, this could just be right.
Anyway, to bury the corpse in the graveyard or to try to preserve it were, in my opinion, both bad ideas. What if one of the new trenches ended up exhuming the body? And I felt that to try to preserve the corpse would drag the whole of my men into an even more morbid disposition.
So, I decided to give him eternal rest in the very sarcophagus he had used as his "hospital" bed. If we had to throw away the bones of the original inhabitant of the casket to open space for Seixas, we would do it. I would give the order.
It took me and three other men to open the casket: two of us pushing hard at one end of the lid, the other two doing the same at the opposite side. In doing so, we made the heavy stone turn around over its center, till there were edges large enough, protruding from above the main body of the sarcophagus, to allow us to slide our hands under the lid and raise it.
While turning, the thing made a grating noise. It made me think of the deafening sound chalk makes sometimes, when pressed, at certain angles, against a blackboard. But the chalk noise never lasts more than a moment. This one seemed to go on forever, stopping only when we paused for breath.
Amidst those pauses, I could hear the sound of heavy cloth being torn, again and again and again -- the owl was flying around the crypt. It was strange. It was of broad daylight.
Finally, we raised the lid and put it to rest at the foot of the casket. Captain Villas-Boas stood there watching us all the time. When we were finished, I think I saw a little twitch at the corner of his left eye.
This was his only display of emotion during the whole affair of the opening of the sarcophagus.
We looked inside: there was a corpse there, something that was almost a skeleton, but not quite so. Not yet, at any rate.
The strange thing is, it was holding something in its hands. A plaque, made of bronze. Oxidation had painted the metal with a strong, bright hue of green, but we could discern some words engraved on it.
It was Latin.
Etiam per me Brasilia magna, it said at the top. "Because of me, also, Brazil is great."
A nice motto.
But there were other words under this sentence. I read them.
In short, the plaque told that, by appointment of His Imperial Majesty Pedro II, in the Year of the Lord, 1883, all the lands comprised between such and such mountains and such and such river were donated to the brothers and sisters of Saint Azédarac, to the establishment of the community of New Averoigne.
"What is this?" asked Captain Villas-Boas, who had been reading the plaque over my shoulder. "I don't understand."
"The old Emperor was fond of donating land in places like this to groups of idealistic Europeans," I said. "People thought there were too many Negroes and Indians in the country, so there was a policy to bring more white blood in. From Europe, of course. There were half a dozen utopic, socialistic, or religious communities established in the south, at Paraná and Santa Catarina, a few years before the Republic. They all failed miserably, of course. I have never heard of one so far north."
"So far north? I had never heard of any at all!"
He eyed me strangely. Thinking, perhaps, that I should be another anarchist and atheist, to know such "secrets" of history. It is true that I have heard about the utopic communities in some Communist Party meetings, but I never signed in with the reds. I'm not sure if they were outlawed by then -- they were outlawed an awful lot of times -- but I just didn't have the right feeling about them.
"I had never heard of the tearshroud legend before, either," I told him. "So, the bit of information I just gave you makes us even, right?"
The sound of cloth-tearing came again, now right from the ceiling. The owl was coming home.
I tapped Villas-Boas on the shoulder and smiled my "let's have a drink" smile. There was nothing to drink but water, and not too much of it, but he got the hint.
The soldiers and I then brought the almost-skeleton and his fancy bronze plate out, and put Seixas body in. The men closed the lid.
The tale about the bronze plate and its contents ran wild through the camp, like flame on gunpowder. The men thought it funny, I guess; the religious, perhaps even Christian nature, of the former inhabitants of the place helped to soothe the feelings of unease that stirred in the hearts most of them -- except in mine.
First, because if this place was some kind of religious community, why wasn't there any church? Not among the wooden derelicts, not even amidst the stone graves and tombs, there wasn't a place of worship anywhere to be seen -- except in the outlines of some of the larger crypts, a few of which bore the format of Gothic cathedrals. But those were mere miniatures, not true churches. And even those similes bore no crosses.
Second, because the names of the saint -- Azédarac -- and of the place -- Averoigne -- stirred almost forgotten memories in my mind. I vaguely remembered some visions and dreams of the time I spent in France, in the second half of the nineteen-twenties; a time of opium and heroin, absinthe and cocaine.
There seemed to be, lurking somewhere inside of me, the memory of a place called Averoigne, a place where the church bore no crosses; a church where the bas-reliefs on the walls showed Our Lady feeding two boys at her bosom, apparently twins, but even so strangely different -- the one to the left bearing signs, in eye and foot, that hinted at some sort of deformity, something kept just below the surface by the artist, never clear, but clear enough to cause a half-felt, half-perceived . . . a bittersweet sense of unease that crept into the back of the eye of any careful beholder.
And, I seemed to recollect, on another bas-relief, the one showing the trial and Christ with the crown of thorns, Pilate was blindfolded.
That night I could hear the owl flying over the camp, into the woods and back again. The coarse sound of its wings was stronger, almost majestic. Once I rolled over just to take a good look at it, when I heard the bird approaching.
It was a beautiful vision, the big bird of prey (was imagination that the creature had waxed even larger?), whiter than the moon, sliding on the air currents above us. The owl's song was clearly musical now. There was still some satisfaction on it, but I seemed to detect a little trace of nervousness -- the promptness of the hunter, I thought.
Besides the regular sentinels, I had detached special scouts to move into the woods and look for signs of Federal troops. It would be more logical if Vargas' boys decided to use the main roads and railroads to move into Sãa Paulo (after all, they could crush the state by sheer numbers), but if any group came through the hills and woods, I'd like to know first. Almost none of my men had any previous combat or military experience, but some of them were quite good, above-average, small-game hunters and trappers. There were six men with such talents.
Those were my scouts. I had them in groups of two, each group covering part of an arch that spanned from northeast to northwest. The arch would become bigger and bigger, of course, and the groups would get more and more apart from each other, but it was a risk I had to take -- or, rather, a risk I had to ask the soldiers to take.
I guess there must have been another solution. A better, safer one. But there were images and sensations haunting me all day. Every day. The fire inside the black pools of the tearshroud eyes; the image of a blindfolded Pilate. The sound of the word, "Averoigne," beating against my brain as surf over wet sand.
"You are welcome here," the flickering darkness said, every time I was half-asleep. There was no woman's face anymore. Just heatless fire and crystalline shadow. And sound: "I'll not try to trick you anymore. I'm woman, yes, but not the way you might think . . . and it's not important. I owe you respect. You know me. You are like me. Years ago, you went home. I know you were there."
Did I? Where?
"You know what I . . . what we . . . need."
There was, I knew, something behind the flickering. Something reminiscent of the hinted deformity in the image of Christ's twin. The image from the bas-relief of the heretic's church. The church from my old, stale heroin dreams.
"What are you?" I would ask, in my mind. "The owl?"
"I'm tearshroud," would be the answer. "Not the owl. You know that my share is due."
Then other memories would come. Those were of something I had read -- images from my imagination, scenes prompted by something I had found in a book years, decades before.
It was, I guess, Moloch, Dagon or Baal, or some other pagan god from the Old Testament. I had read about it in a mythology book. I'd never seen a picture of it. But the image was there, on my mind.
It was a bronze statue, cross-legged, potbellied like a Buddha, but large -- very large -- I'd say, big as a house. The big bronze hands rested on the statue's lap. The thing was fully anthropomorphic, except by the head.
It had the head of a fish -- or of something meant to be taken as a fish: there were big, round, bulging, empty eyes, no nose, and a large, open, yawning mouth, bent downwards at the corners and lined with small, evil-looking, triangular teeth. There were engravings on that face. They could be something written, some message or charm transliterated into hieroglyphs of some sort, or a network of fantastic drawings trying to depict scales, thorns or feathers.
The belly of the statue was shinning, red-rot. There were scented fumes coming from the corners of the mouth and from two horn-like protuberances on the thing's forehead.
When the heat of the belly attained the right temperature -- one could know by listening carefully: the smoke from mouth and horns would sing then, giving the impression that the statue was whimpering, as a tamed wolf asking for food -- a living, newborn baby would be placed on the big, open hands.
Then, by some hidden mechanism (I knew there was a mechanism, something operated by means of levers, sand and steam; and I knew, also, that the operators of the big machine did their work blindfolded) the hands would raise, and raise, and sometimes the child would giggle pleasantly, thinking everything so fun, till it was dropped into the fumigating mouth, roll down the red-hot metal tunnel to the slow burning furnace at the idol's belly.
Then the child would cry, but no one would hear.
And the sparks that would come over the mouth-and-horn apertures looked not as common fire sparks, but seemed cold and distant, like the flickering light of the owl's eyes.
And, for the first time, I saw that the cold sparks were more beautiful than any woman could ever be.
"My people of New Averoigne died the wrong way," tearshroud said, while the vanishing light of placated fire, of distant stars, moved me almost to tears. "It was not right. I was robbed. Trapped."
"Wrong way?" I asked in my mind.
It wouldn't answer. Somehow I knew the contact, the dream, had been broken.
Then I awoke, knowing daylight had come.
And it saddened me: there was so much truth in those black pools, in the cold spark of eyes and vanishing stars. A truth that made my heart feel bigger, my mind, sharper; something seductive of the spark that, I felt, was trapped in me, also.
And trapped were my men and me.
This my scouts told me all along the next few days. There were Federal troops coming in the woods from every angle -- even from the south, I learned. We were surrounded, and the Varguists were coming in.
If you study the history of the Revolution of '32, you won't see any tale of Sãa Paulo being invaded by Federals. The books say we just surrendered after four months of fighting, when the situation became desperate. No invasion was needed.
Well, it might have been true for the biggest part of the conflict. But not at New Averoigne.
Till this day, I do not know why the Federals came. As I said, we were in the woods, far from the main communication lines. They could as well have forgotten us up there, in the hills, and the war would have ended exactly the same way.
Unless, of course, someone in Rio knew about New Averoigne and its secrets. Perhaps there were other sparks at other, higher places, manipulating things.
But, to what end? Not even I can state it into simple words.
Anyway, the fact was undeniable: we were surrounded. Trapped.
"It's a trap we can brake only with blood," I remember saying. Captain Villas-Boas eyed me strangely when I told him that.
"Don't be melodramatic," he answered, finally.
"What do you mean?"
"Come on . . . There is no need to fight. You have told me yourself that the Constitutionalist cause is doomed. After all, the courier . . . No help from the other states, for God's sake! We can surrender. It won't do any harm."
I thought him a coward? I don't know. What he said was quite sensible. We were all Brazilians, after all, and perhaps the Constitutionalist movement could keep going as a political (if not military) force. But I remembered the words from tearshroud in my dream . . .
"You are welcome."
And . . .
"My people died the wrong way."
Suddenly, I knew the meaning of it: "wrong way." Without pain. Without blood. Only pain and blood could feed, could release the spark, could bring the cold stars into being. Why, it had been only after Seixas death that the touch of the owl in my mind had . . .
"I'd like to do as you ask," I told Villas-Boas. "But it cannot be. I see no more reason in this mess than you. But we are in a war, and soldiers don't surrender without a fight."
Make it a short fight, then," he said. "And surrender quickly."
"I'll do things as they have to be done. I'll put a decent fight. I'll do my duty and let the outcome be with Providence."
"You are just washing your hands, you pompous bastard," he said, bitterly. "Then, try not to wash them in blood!"
And he left before listening to my reply:
"Blood, sir doctor, is the only thing that can set us free."
And I'll be damned if I knew what I meant by "us."
I gave orders to the scouts and patrols to use the matracas quite liberally. It was supposed to keep the Federalists guessing about our real firepower, making them cautious and delaying the advance of their forces. In truth, it only made them use more force than would have been necessary to defeat us.
They bombarded the camp with fragmentation shells; they used real machine-guns. I deployed the trenches in a way to create and keep a bloody, painful stalemate as long as possible. I would keep mutilated men on active service; I would send them into meaningless, suicidal missions.
And above the screams, the sobs, the blasts, I would hear the coarse sound of tearshroud wings, the beautiful music of its cry. I could feel the spark in me vibrating along with the stars in the owl's eyes; vibrating, growing. Men were dying for this, but so what? Men die for things they don't know and don't understand in every war. It was just fitting that, in this one, they would die for my own satisfaction.
Is that it? Soldiers dying for my pleasure?
Now I remember it fully.
"Surrender, you arrogant fool! Surrender!"
I recall Villas-Boas crying this to me, as the Federalists came pouring out of the trenches in a movement that for me was like one of those endless waves of African ants we see in the movies. But the Federalists were not ants. They were dealing death with grenade, bullet and bayonet.
They were making an awful sound, which almost overshadowed my laughter.
Because I was laughing. Hysterically. Like a maniac.
Villas-Boas grabbed me. Shook me. I took my gun and shot him, point blank, right in the neck.
Tearshroud, the star inside tearshroud, singed in satisfaction.
A tidal gush of blood seemed to jump at me, coming out from Villas-Boas decapitated body. The dark-red liquid blinded me; and, as I couldn't see anything of what was going on all around, I heard close, very close, the sound of the owl's wings -- just that this time the tearing of heavy cloth seemed to take shape, to form words. Like a voice coming from a very dry throat:
"Now I'm free! Your own turn will come. We shall meet again, brother."
Then I heard the tearshroud no more. And I guess I forgot almost all of the details --
Till that day after my sister's funeral, that is. That was the almost-sound at my back; after the return of the memory, the association was inevitable.
I turned slowly, thinking about how they had given me a medal for my "heroic stand" at New Averoigne. Sixty men under my command. All dead.
They said I have wandered through the woods for weeks. They said I'd never have full recollection of what had happened.
And they gave me a medal. And I wouldn't have to pay any taxes for the rest of my life.
The government would even bury my sister for free.
Standing there, I turned.
I saw the kid from the administration office. But he was staring blankly at me -- eyes empty, colourless, mouth agape. Then he fell flat on his own face, breaking teeth and nose.
Now I could see there was something on his back: a big white owl, its beak red, dripping threads of raw flesh and hot blood. Unnecessary to say, I think, that there was a nasty-looking hole between the kid's shoulder blades.
It's almost your turn now," the coarse sound of beating wings told me. "It's almost time for your star to get free. I'm back to this familiar shape just for a while, for old times' sake. But there'll be other shapes, other guises. I'll use them to be able to help you, as you have helped me."
Yes, I knew it. The dead boy was just the beginning of my own transcendence.
More would come. Many, many more.
Knowing this, I couldn't repress a faint smile. It seems that, after all, there'll be women weeping because of me.
Created: May 16, 2000; Current Update: August 9, 2004