The Hero of Monte Alegre
The bus moves ahead slowly enough to navigate the rutted path that serves as the road. I boarded at my village of Monte Alegre, for a journey I make every month to visit my mother.
I am sixty-three and once the youngest of four, half of whom passed away before they were steady enough to stand. My older brother, Carlos, and I are all that remain. He is a garimpeiro, a prospector of gold.
The last we heard, he was in a mining camp near Tapajos, a tributary of the lower Amazon. He was working waist deep in mud and insects, fighting off dysentery and malaria. He and his new brothers are at war with the farmers, the ranchers, lumbermen, every generation of native Indian, the owner of the mine, but mostly with the earth they pillage.
They carry guns and fear nothing but the desperation of other garimpeiros. His hands are mangled, his back twisted, stooped with age and disappointment. We were once close. By persuasion, I get along with most, even my wife.
“You would rather wander in the fields or follow the trickle of a stream or talk to macaws than be with your family. You are a good man with a bad habit,” my wife would scold, more tolerantly as we grew older.
She was at least grateful that I didn’t stray by drinking or by smoking or perverting or by succumbing to an acquired cruelty fed by the intoxication of modern civilization.
In a way, I was worse. Anna never had an adversary. No one to pry me loose from. To show me where I had strayed. And she knew I loved her and our family. But our children are gone now. One is a fisherman, and Miguel, our older boy, was killed in an avalanche when he was just fourteen. He was Anna’s favorite.
The smell of half-cooked chickens, fish, and snakes, the raucous cry of live macaws, Amazon parrots, and a young howler monkey fill the floating village that is our bus. Only here we can get off when we please. In your village, you are trapped. You can never leave. That is why I sometimes wander. It is a curse difficult to explain.
Two old women get off. Two men climb on. The men are dressed in clean work pants and crisp green shirts. The bus runs into the foothills once a week.
My mother lives on the other side of the mountain where she was born, and where she returned after my father died. The doctor said it was his heart. Of late, my chest has been speaking in a strange, unintelligible language—not threatening, yet no longer reassuring. It is age, or the fear of it.
As part of a youth education exchange program fostered by the government, I went to live with a family near Sao Paulo for a year. It was an honor to be chosen. I can still hear the clanking thunder of the trolley cars, blinding bright lights, music everywhere. That pulse of life cursed and changed me forever.
“We’re not good enough for him now.” My father said this to my mother upon my return.
“He is no different than when he left.”
“He left a boy who respected his parents, and he returns with ideas and argues all the time.”
“That’s what parents should hope for in all their children.”
He pulled a map from the wall. “We live here,” he said, jabbing his finger into a spot northwest of the Brazilian Mato Grosso, close to the Paraguayan border. “Not in Sao Paulo.”
“He is smart. He will have a good job.”
“You’re so certain of him, are you?”
Carlos baited and teased me more relentlessly afterwards, once he realized the depth of my father’s displeasure at my growing independence. My mother was distressed. My father remained disapproving and more indifferent than ever. I began my wandering soon after. I told Anna this.
“You have children of your own now, or are you your father’s son?”
I had no answer.
I worked as an assistant engineer in the local utility and made a comfortable living. But that didn’t mean I could abandon my family when I was so disposed. I was foolish and selfish. I missed the casual times when my children were growing. I was there for them, more than most, but not as I could have been. They deserved to have a more attentive father, as did I.
The apple Anna handed me before I left is delicious, juicy, tart, and hard. Anna takes good care of me. I always wanted to be her hero, but that opportunity passed me over, as it does to most men, except in their fantasies.
A woman screams angrily in the front of the bus at a man who tried to take her seat when she got up to rearrange her baggage. She is all over him—kicking, biting, protesting as chicken feathers and dust blow up around her.
In the foothills, where many were connected by blood, there is little thievery and a natural respect for property. Man became the savage only when he left these confines, only when he went to live in the big cities or worked the gold fields. There, life is meaningless. You could die in the gutter and only the dogs would come to sniff you out.
The man gets up and comes to the back of the bus searching for refuge from her fury, a corner to sooth his humiliation.
The bus is a traveling relic. It served its useful life years ago. The local municipality promises to replace it each year. No one believes the politicians.
I close my eyes and listen to the jungle slip by my window. The owl-faced monkey screaming back at the old woman who reclaimed her seat, the brocket deer watching in amusement though nervous and fearful of the air about him, the billowing poison arrow frog whose spit is as lethal as the giant anaconda is powerful.
The man next to me has fallen sleep outside Chinchipaw, a small fishing village, the last enclave before we climb from the base of the mountain. I once knew a young girl there. She had dark eyes that enchanted and entranced. When I first met her I thought she was a witch, she so turned my heart into corners of my chest that had never been explored. She told me I was handsome and strong and that she loved me. That was the first time my family went to visit friends in her village.
Years later, I learned that her father had abused her after her mother died. After that, she told each young stranger that passed through her village that they were handsome and strong, and that she loved them.