One Afternoon In Fortaleza
It's you! Isn't it? My God! It is you. It really is. My God. And so how are you? You remember me, don't you? Aha, yes you do. I can tell. You still have that smile. You do remember me. That pleases me. It pleases me immensely.
Let me get you something. I'm just here to have breakfast. I'm working. I only have an hour. You'll have to let me know how to get in touch with you. My goodness. You look the same. No, it's true. You do. I'm a truck driver. Yes, you make your choices and live with them. I saw the world, now I'm seeing my own country. I had my dessert first.
This is incredible! I've thought about you so many times. I can still remember you sitting on the red and black painted sidewalk in front of your little shop. The people of Fortaleza wait every afternoon for the sea breeze, don't they? When it makes its way up through the streets, carrying the smells of cooking and of the sea, the sounds of crying, of music and laughter and the arguing of birds and of merchants on the docks, Fortaleza comes to life again, and in those days, anyway, didn't rest until close to morning when the last dance was danced.
But yes, on that afternoon, the city was still waiting and I was making my way up through the narrow streets, and I was halfway up the hillside and came upon your little store, with it's painted walls, painted windows, painted door and roof. You had painted not only the sidewalk but also, it seemed to me, the air all around, and the store seemed to float above the row of small brown buildings it was a part of.
People said you had opened the store with a handsome mulatto, but that he had returned to the interior. No one knew why he left, but when the store was closed for a few days each month, it was said you were in the interior. You simply came back and opened up again, with a new supply of the potions and roots you sold in the store along with icons and paintings and feathers and finely woven things made of alpaca wool, and of course your crystals.
When I came up the street, you were sitting on the steps, resting your chin in the palms of your hands, your elbows propped on your knees. The large birds on your long black skirt, embroidered in gold and red and blue, seemed to be resting, too, waiting for the sea breeze. You looked up and smiled. You gave me that smile of yours.
You saw right away that I was from one of the cargo ships.
"Hi sailor. What are you looking for?"Your smile remained fixed on me, that sly, I'd even call it sultry, smile of yours.
"I don't know," I said. "I'll know it when I see it."
You looked toward the sea. From your street on the hillside, one could see the mouth of the harbor and the ocean. "I've never found what I'm looking for," you said, and then looking at me and smiling, added, "I thought I had, a couple of times. But I was wrong."
"Are you open?" I asked, nodding toward the door.
"Oh yes," you said, smiling again. "Come in and look around!"
It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the light, but the strange and wonderful smells entered my senses immediately. Eventually I could see an entire wall covered with roots and dried plants, and the counter in front of it that held rows of glass jars filled with plants and more roots and dried flowers, and there were many clay pots of different sizes containing who knows what. Eventually there appeared glass beads, in jars, and on strings, and woven into necklaces and amulets and bracelets. Then the paintings with gold and silver paint appeared, along with many other things, some of which obviously were not from that land.
A raspy voice from somewhere in the store startled me, "Did you bring your money?" I looked up and saw the parrot perched on the biggest prong of a huge set of antlers of some strange beast, that when they came into focus startled me again, and when I turned around you were standing in the doorway. You were laughing, with those big hazel eyes.
When I had some free time in a city like Fortaleza I would go looking. I was collecting things. I didn't know what I was collecting then, but when something delighted me or interested me, I bought it. I didn't have much space under my bunk, so I had to be selective, otherwise I would have bought the painting of the brown Madonna. I settled for a small one, the one with the cactus plants and a woman's legs, and a book.
I still have that book. God's Little Acre. The painting, well, life gets rearranged. Every time you move on, a job, an opportunity that's not here but over there, a marriage, a love affair, when things finally settle down, the arrangement is different. The lover takes things, they leave things behind. You pick up things and leave them behind. You lose, you gain, you move on, and the arrangement that is your outward life has changed. The little painting is gone, but it's still in my memory, and sometimes, when I remember that painting, the woman, whose legs are walking past some cactus plants, is dancing, like you were.
That same night, some shipmates and I went out. We kept losing members of our little crew, and when we walked into the little cabaret halfway up the hillside, there was only Ahmed and I, and there on the stage, you were, still in your long black skirt with its embroidered birds, but your glittery high heeled sandals were gone. You danced in bare feet, gliding and swirling to the band's sambas. When you stopped dancing and sang habanera, the frenzied dancers on the floor returned to their seats, and everyone sat transfixed. That's when you saw me. You were singing, and you smiled.
Finally, after dancing and drinking for hours, after falling in and out of love with you several times, after consuming the strange steaming bowls of vegetables and meats that kept appearing on the table in front of us, and after, every time I caught your eye, you gave me the same sly, sultry smile, finally, toward daylight, the band members packed their instruments, and you left with the general who the people called O Diabo. Those were the times, of course, before the people rose up, when the country was run by the generals.
When the revolution came, it was said that O Diabo was found in his bed covered with blood, and a long, crystal pendant was embedded in his throat, and all of his papers were missing, and it was said that the papers told where the army kept its supplies, its ammunition, its guns, and even what its plans were if the people should rise up.
The little shop on the hillside was shuttered for a long time. There were rumors, of course, occasionally, but who can tell? Someone would return from a trip and say they saw you selling in a market. Someone saw your picture in the foreign press, another saw it on a poster for a film. In some music stores, there are still records that sound like you, but the name is not the same, and there is a mural in another city that is sometimes attributed to you, but who can say?
And now I hear, just lately, from old friends in the merchant marine, that the shop has been reopened by a young man who makes monthly trips to the interior, and who watches old movies on DVD, a handsome young mulatto with hazel eyes who plays old habanera records, in the afternoon, before the sea breeze comes.
It's strange, how the memory works. Isn't it? Sometimes I see myself in your store. Sometimes. Ah, your big parrot. What was it that he said? Bring your money? No, he would ask you if you brought your money. But I remember that store, things in it. The roots, the plants, the clay jars. Very pretty, some of them. And the paintings. So many beautiful paintings. That Madonna. It was your mother, wasn't it? You know, years later I can still picture that painting, in my memory.
The young man, in the background. With the red eyes. I was never quite sure. Were they his eyes, or were they red holes where his eyes had been? I couldn't really tell. Light from his eyes seemed to cast a glow over the peasant woman next to him. I told you then that I didn't have enough space to store a painting of that size in my berth. The perspective in the painting was very strange. The young man was as tall as the hill beside him, but he was much smaller than the peasant woman, and when I commented on that you had been silent for a long time, and then you said, "That is my father."
I was going to buy that painting, but I made an excuse for myself. I'll admit it to you now. You know, of course, that I eventually heard the story about your mother and father, about how the soldiers came and found the mimeograph machine they used to copy their flyers. That was your mother, wasn't it? The brown Madonna. In the painting. And the peasant woman, that was you. I was told the story of what happened. And about the resistance, just before they went underground. They broke in, the soldiers, and searched the house and found the mimeograph machine. They found the flyers, many of them. The one in charge was a young officer. He ordered that everyone be tied up. He ordered that they be executed.
They were all executed that day, except for your mother. She was left to live. After they were shot, the young officer in charge ordered the other soldiers to leave. O Diabo ordered the others to leave that day, and when they were gone, he turned to your mother with a sly, sultry smile.
Note: The photo is by Celso Amorim