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.
I finish my apple and fold the core into a paper towel. I will let my mother give it to her dog, a foul creature that scavenged the hills around her village but returned to her side in the evening.
“He reminds me of your grandfather,” she once said, with loving disapproval.
I believe she is one of those rare people who saw goodness where most saw distemper. Long ago, she had forgotten how difficult my childhood was with my father, as if such irregularities were too common to dwell upon.
A cool breeze, unusual for late afternoon, squeezes through the open windows. The bus clanks along, making stops every so often for water, and to pick up boxes or luggage which break free from their bindings on the top of the bus.
I glance up to the sky. Yellow drips with red against a washed out blue. The jungle is alive with a frenzy of feeding and narrow escapes.
The trip will take another two hours. Sometimes I catch sight of a plane flying between the clouds. I wonder what it must be like to look down at the mountains and rivers below.
The bus slows to a crawl. A small, portable steel drilling rig perched on the back of a flatbed truck stands in our way. The top of the drill rig cuts high into the trees leaving a trail of dead branches and uprooting small animals caught up in the swath of its destruction. The road will not accommodate both vehicles.
Our driver sits motionless waiting for the truck to back into a clearing, as the law proscribes. According to the mud-splattered sign on its side, the rig is owned by one of the largest mining companies in the state. Finally, the driver gets out and approaches the driver’s side of the bus. The rig driver simply folds a bill into our driver’s outstretched hand.
An old woman yelps out, “Money! Why is it always money? Thieves and scoundrels! We are a nation born as peasants and die as peasants.”
A few passengers join in her indignation—more simply laugh, or fall back to sleep. We reverse into a clearing as the truck slides by our rusted hide. Passengers jeer accusingly at the truck driver. A young boy throws something at the driver’s window.
‘The truck driver has a job to do. His work is more important than those of traveling peasants. He brings work to the natives; gives them money, food, shelter,’ Carlos would have declared, praising the truck driver, while condemning the bus driver for accepting a bribe.
It doesn’t matter to my brother that the toxic mercury he uses to wrench the gold from the soil flows unhindered into the rivers and tributaries, poisoning the fish and the natives who eat the fish. When you are born poor in a land so rich, it is difficult to remain unaffected by temptation.
A half-hour later we stop at a small village tucked just above the tree line overlooking the valley from which we came. Many passengers get out to stretch. Several buy fruit and trinkets from the villagers.
The two men in pressed uniforms rest against the side of the water tower. The driver fills the radiator and gets back into his swayback seat. Passengers trail in after him.
Many years ago a bus broke its axle and stranded over forty passengers overnight further up the mountain. But it was a night too much for the child—a beautiful little girl with braids and a quick, disarming smile, accompanying her mother home. Hours before the attack, the group heard the chilling growl of a circling jaguar.
They huddled together, secure that big cats never attacked where there was a fire. The mother slipped in and out of an exhausted haze. Her daughter—who was not yet three—stood at her side, transfixed by a spider monkey wailing in the darkness. In an act of pure arrogance, the jaguar flashed from a jungle thicket, vaulted the campfire, and scooped up the child in its jaws and vanished. The mother, grazed by the big cat, woke with a scream that came too late. A family of spider monkeys screeched with relief that they were spared.
As a child, I wanted to be a mountain until I saw how easily, effortlessly, clouds moved about, from one valley to the next. Mountains were there forever, an intrusion around which man foraged for survival. I was quite certain it was far better to be a cloud.
“Would you like some?” the old man next to me asks, holding out his new canteen.
“I’ve got my own,” I answer, appreciative of his offer but cautious of where his water was drawn.
He takes another gulp and screws on the cap. The man has been asleep most of the journey. He is dressed in tatters, his right knee in bandages.
I wish Anna were at my side. “Will you come with me?” I’ve asked several times recently.
“No, you go. Your mother needs you.”
“What my mother needs isn’t a reason for you to stay at home.”
“Maybe not, but you going to see her is one less journey you will make without me between visits.”
Finally, we reach my mother’s village. It is the last stop. The streets are littered with empty wooden equipment boxes. Clothing hangs from dead trees. Stray dogs are everywhere. Though mostly played out, there is a small mining camp only five kilometers away.
The natives of my mother’s village fear and hate the prospectors who come from all over the Amazon and from all over the Americas.
My mother lives with her friend, a neighbor, I pay a little each month to bring her the comfort her friend would bestow upon her anyway. We sit and talk and reminisce about her husband—my father—her children, the loss of my son, her health—which is her least concern. We share fragments of food though neither of us is hungry. She does not want to talk about the future. Neither do I. It is our ritual.
My stay is longer than usual, as the radiator in the bus needed repair. She is pleased with the delay.
“I look to see you soon, my son,” she says, taking my hand in hers.
“Is there anything I can bring you?” I ask, as I always do, knowing she will never leave her village.
“You bring me what I want most. That is your greatest gift to me.”
The driver motions to the few returning passengers.
“I will be fine,” she adds. “I will pray and my prayers will be answered as they always are each month.”
A piha bird screams above us. Once, their “wolf whistles” filled the morning air. Now only stragglers float overhead in search of a mate.
My mother’s hands are cool around mine. The right hand within hers was broken in an accident in a work shed of the utility company where I was employed. The muscles were torn—the bones never healed properly. I live off a small pension, more compassionately generous because of my many years with the company. I cannot twist or let my fingers fly free with a child’s dexterity.
Instead, I grasp. Simply grasp. My fingers open and close as one. They are bound to that singular, predictable movement. The grasp of my left hand is powerful, crushing in fact. It has had to compensate, to adapt, and with training easily performs the work of two. My mother kisses my injured hand.
“And you will not follow your brother?”
“I will not follow Carlos. I have my Anna and you and will always be at your side.”
“Carlos is foolish, but is a good boy.”
“Yes, and he will return someday so we are a family once again,” I assure her. My mother longs to see him again. As do I.
A fight breaks out in a nearby bar. The local sheriff soon appears to quell the uproar. Of course, he isn’t a real sheriff, merely an appendage of the local merchants association that purchases gold from the miners. The dissension is soon quelled, not with an arrest, but with the butt of a rifle from one of the sheriff’s toadies.
The jungle at night is not the same as during the oppressive, hanging heat of the afternoon. The new crop of passengers are themselves different. Few women travel at night. And on this journey, as with most going back from the mine fields, there are broken men, those who have tempted and tested the mountains and their courage and have lost.
They sit subdued, condemning themselves for their bad fortune, damning the devils that urged them into the jungle. They go back to their wives and children, unable to cope with their loss, unwilling to confront the realities of their failure.
By the time we reach Monte Alegre several of the miners will have gotten off without using their full fare. The driver of the bus will nod to some, knowing that he will be the last man they would ever see before the jungle swallows them alive. Often, their only companion is a bottle of alcohol in their grasp.
There is a silver flutter on a branch near my window. A sword-billed hummingbird hovers in a blur of winged agitation above a nectar-laden pestle. My father taught us about how they lived and their role in the regeneration of the forest. I don’t recall much of that lesson. I might have been too angry or disenchanted to pay attention. In many ways I still am that child. Only parts of me came into adulthood, though few have genuinely embraced it.
The bus strikes a large rock in the road. The driver opens the door and gets out, examining the damage. He does not question how the rock made its way onto the road. I have spoken to him several times. He is a good man, an honest traveler who demands little and performs with uncommon spirit.
He grew up in Guategue, Columbia, a village no larger than mine. His older brother, Roberto, was a bus driver. He wanted to be a bus driver too. Roberto tried to persuade him against it with this story.
“A young man got on my bus. He was about twenty. He was out of breath. He gave me money for a ticket with his left hand and kept his right hand in his pocket. He moved quickly to the back of the bus. Several stops later, police cars pulled us over. At first, I thought I had gone too fast or was driving recklessly. I knew that wasn’t the case when they approached with guns drawn.
“A woman in the back of the bus screamed, as the young man kicked open the emergency exit and jumped out. The police chased him down. When they manacled him, he was forced to remove his right hand from his pants. There was a withered hand clasped in his right hand. It had been severed at the wrist. The heavy silver ring, the thing he had cut a man’s hand off to get, was still wrapped about the dead man’s finger.”
I respect our driver. I believe I would have liked Roberto.
I get to my feet and walk forward to make sure the driver is still in our headlights. There are twenty-foot boas and bushmasters thick as a man leg, enormous snakes that forage eagerly in the dark. He clears away the rock and returns to the bus.
We arrive at the next village. Five passengers climb off, while two miners board. I look down at my watch. It was my father’s watch. My mother gave it to me earlier. I was saddened to take it. She loved him deeply. She had given it to him on their wedding.
When I worked for the utility, I wore a watch. I had inspections to make. Responsibilities. Now there is little for me to command. No one solicits my advice or suggestions. It looks so handsome on my wrist. I am proud to wear it. But, as I said, I am saddened, for it is a sign. And I can read a trail better than most.
We wind across the path of two more sleepy villages. The bus is now crowded with miners. It’s the last weekend of the month. The men on rotation at some of the larger claims go home for a week after months of twelve-hour days. The last weekend of the month. I forgot.
Two men stand in the headlights with work sacks slung over their shoulders. It is not uncommon to pick up passengers along the way. As long as they pay, and the driver usually keeps the fare since they did not purchase their tickets through the small ticket offices in each village. They climb aboard, and one sits by me. His trousers are splattered with mud. His shirt is soiled through with dirt and sweat.
He notices me staring down at my watch. Trinkets that sparkle and shine among a land that gives up so little for so much leaves a community of men yearning for something—anything—different. Temptation eats away at men who have so little to show for their years and less promise that tomorrow will offer any relief from today.
I must have nodded off, because I am wakened by a sharp explosion. The man sitting in front, one of the pair who got on last, is standing next to the driver with a pistol in his hand. Smoke bellows out of the barrel.
“Quickly, now! Your money, your valuables. Your wallets, too. Into this bag,” he says as his companion, the man who was sitting at my side rushes to the front. “Do as I say or I’ll kill him!” he adds, taking the driver from his seat by the length of his hair.
A miner, knowing what he has strapped to his waist under his shirt, tries to push by the one with the gun, but is struck down. An old woman screams and turns away.
These intrusions are uncommon, but not unknown. Last year, three men were hung for robbing a bus. It is a dangerous business for which the state offers no pity or due process. If you’re caught, you will be hung.
The leader releases the driver and fires another salvo. “Take a good look at my face. I wear no mask and I am not afraid. I will kill each of you if I have to if you don’t fill this bag,” he demands, handing off the canvas bag to his companion.
He moves along the aisles threatening, cursing, reaching for money, and tearing strings of worthless jewelry from the few necks that possess them. One man hesitates, not quite resisting. He is clubbed into submission.
There is a sense of urgency about them. A woman in the seat two rows in front of me withholds her purse, “Please, I have so little. Please, don’t take it,” she implores.
He grabs the woman’s purse then presses his hand down between her hip and the side of the bus. He pulls out a small brown bag. It contains a sandwich and half an apple. He throws it out the window.
Finally, he comes to me, thrusting the bag in my face. The red and black letters on the side of the canvas bag are worn, but I can make out the name of a local bank.
‘Nothing really belongs to you,’ so the fable goes. ‘You are here on earth to watch over what you possess until you die, or you give it up willingly, or it is taken from you.’ I heard this many times as a child. It’s taught in the schools on the first day of the school year devoted to civics.
I pull my wallet from my pants pocket. It contains some money, but what riches were in it when I began my trip are now buried in the corner of my mother’s small cabin. What remains are mostly photos which I cherish.
“Now the watch, old man,” he demands, reaching down to wrench from my wrist something I once believed kept my father’s image alive.
As if I have practiced this maneuver many times before, I simply grab the edge of his palm with my left hand and sharply twist it around. He is caught off guard and off balance and falls to my side, striking his head against the metal seat railing. Blood spurts from a long gash from his forehead. Fumbling for his balance, he bellows out in pain.
I turn and give his hand one last, wrenching twist. I can feel the bones in his arm shatter. The gunman in the front of the bus, distracted for a moment by the cry, quickly falls under a rain of blows from the enraged bus driver who jumps to his side and half a dozen garimpeiros that follow.
A young man in his mid-twenties rushes to my side and brings the heel of his boot down on the head of the man with the ruined forearm.
Badly beaten, they are trussed up like chickens and laid in the aisle between the seats where passengers can keep them down with t