ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 05

The Summer of Chibo

Author | Autor: Vanessa Barbara and Emilio Fraia

Translated by Katrina Dodson

Chapter 1

The boys are out there in the cornfield where the shooting begins. Bruno
breaks out ahead, his stomach weak from laughing so hard, behind him
comes Moptop, who’s always falling into the same potholes; he opens
fire with colorful ammunition—I can swear, even from a distance, that the
gumdrop blitz claimed the field and pierced the air like confetti. My brother, Chibo, was
in the back seat. I was in front, on my knees, with my head hanging outthe window.
From the car, I kept sight of Moptop, who couldn’t manage to peg anyone,
especially not in the middle of all that corn, and once again the Bulgarian spy would
reach the neutral country’s border under a downpour of banana chews. Wounded
in the back, possibly, he’d climb the hemp rope up to the tree house and call out
you sissy you sissy. Moptop would say it didn’t count because the game wasn’t fun
anymore and Her Majesty’s plans were encrypted or Bulgaria didn’t even exist (and
he’d be right, for sure). Then he’d burst into the most decadent, overblown tantrum
since our preschool days and start beating up on the younger kids. But not on Chibo,
of course. My brother was the oldest of all; he’d just turned twelve, was strong,
always stuck up for me, and—I looked in the rearview mirror. He was silent: my words
faded away like a station gone off the air. When the car stopped, I hopped out on
one foot, and Chibo, full of lightning, didn’t move a muscle. He just sat there, distant.
I tried to say something but got the hiccups as I slammed the car door shut (and I
know everyone laughs whenever I start a sentence and then get stuck on a hiccup,
cut off by a jolt that makes me lose my balance), so I kept quiet. I swallowed my
breath and stood watching as the car got smaller and smaller, until it disappeared
along the edge of the cornfield.
On the plantation, Moptop was headed in Bruno’s direction, arms flapping
wildly. Bruno sped up hard (wrists firm), shot some clumps of vegetation over his
shoulder—at that point I was running too, without really knowing why—and we
collided at the midpoint between tree house and road. Actually, I was almost run
over: he flew by me and spun me around like a turnstile, raising a cloud of dust and
a sweltering southern wind. I coughed and hiccupped in alternating sequences and
had just managed to open my eyes when (the hiccups stopped) out sprang Moptop
at top speed and, plop, knocked me over. The ground was hot enough to fry your
hands on; the plantation was starting to get scorched and would only get worse, but
 a huge downpour fell that day, hard enough to hurt your back, the kind that
ends after five minutes and leaves behind a mere trace of civilizations and a few
submerged ants.
Without stopping, Bruno looked toward the sky with his mouth open and tried
to swallow raindrops. He didn’t notice that the dirt was already slick, and the chances
of slipping were as high as our tree house junk pile, so that he skid, skated, and lost
a shoe. He muttered some curse that I didn’t catch and continued running in sock
feet. Just behind him, Moptop stopped, picked up the artifact and classified it as
Exhibit A of the Prosecution—but he didn’t exactly request the judge’s permission
before swinging the sneaker by its shoelace and launching it into the distance. Plop:
an insole and high-top projectile well-aimed at the Bulgarian spy.
Despite the size 5-5 ½ caliber wound in his back, Bruno kept running. He dragged
himself along stumbling, imagining his glory as a national hero. The chase would be
shown on TV in slow-motion, and afterward people would cheer for him as he rode
down the street on a parade float. He’d show his great-great-great-grandchildren
the mark from the sole at family barbecues and tell longwinded war stories, maybe
even attend veterans’ reunions and stuff like that.
Bruno would’ve reached the tree housefor sure, if it hadn’t been for the
intervention of the Great Puddle, the mother of all mud puddles, which appeared all
of a sudden while he was looking back. The spy sank all the way in and fell face first.
A caramelized Bruno emerged from that mass of muck and saw that it was useless
to resist. Two steps away, Moptop’s silhouette was already reminding him of his right
to remain silent, reciting the First Amendment off the top of his head and showing
him (nonexistent) handcuffs. Two inches away, a dirty, circular piece of metal glinted
up at Bruno, possibly a ring. He managed to pocket it without Moptop noticing and
was subsequently detained by the authorities and imprisoned in the tree house.
Chibo wasn’t there either when Bruno told us about the dead man—a body
on the other side of the wire fence, in a place on the plantation that, from the way
he talked, sounded very very far away. He’d been a kind of traitor to the Bulgarian
people, a guy who didn’t follow the law and didn’t pay taxes because, well, he was
dead after all. It didn’t take long: in the middle of the cornfield, a whirlwind alive with
secret circles, entrances and exits, Bruno suggested a game. Kneeling, he spread
out the pages of a spiral notebook on the dirt floor(his entire cartography). He
calculated distances and provisions, asked each of us to spin around on our own
axis in order to throw off the enemy, and, finally, based on preliminary studies of the
local geography and position of the clouds, pointed to the narrowest path where the
leaves appeared to be stained with rust. That way, he said. His vague yet intensive
directions (west corresponded to north and the center was next to the eastern
border) led up to a tree that stood, all alone and very red, near some old persimmon
trees, just past a rise where the trail branched off into one, two, three more. Then
Moptop decided, just like that, that he’d seen the stiff too and to prove he wasn’t
lying, pushed ahead eagerly without any more questions, clearing the way with his
arm, gathering vegetation samples—“turn right or keep going straight because it all
ends up the same anyway”— and protected his face with his other hand.
We kept silent and walked on, flicking here and there to scare off the weevils
that stuck to our legs. Moptop seemed excited and walked quickly: “Now all we have
to do is follow the colored lines on Bruno’s maps, go back twenty, thirty steps, and
that’s it.” Once in awhile he’d stop short, look back and give some random order
(we almost never understood). Ahead of me, Bruno, who was dealing well with
these abrupt brakings, kept quiet—maybe he felt a stomach ache coming on. I just
followed along, in the stern.
The corn trail didn’t seem to lead anywhere, and the vegetation was getting
thicker and more stifling. I looked back and noticed that it was closing in again
behind us, but I didn’t say anything. I never did. Moptop was bitten all over and
looked happy. He stopped to scratch his leg and examine a beetle stuck to his ankle
bone. Bruno considered taking advantage of the situation to climb up on his back
and shout from on high, “Land ho!” but ended up minding his manners and asked
for a boost. In two seconds, the Brunoscope was raised up above the cornfield.
He couldn’t find the wire fence or any other landmarks but spotted a clearing at
a distance of twenty feet to the starboard side where we could take a break from
scratching and examine the maps.
It was a small area covered in crushed leaves that formed some kind of alien
symbol from above (according to Moptop). We sat down without keeping watch
on the rear or knowing whether the area was mined, just collapsed on the ground
and started fanning ourselves. Bruno drew his knees together and sang softly. At
this point, he probably had a terrible explanation for everything and got quieter and
quieter—then stopped singing and looked at us, as though it were time to join in the
chorus. Moptop lowered his head and confessed that well, actually, he hadn’t really
seen the dead body, not with his eyes, you know?, had only heard a story that—
Bruno got up and moved ahead: “My turn to lead.” He consulted the map, said that
we were going the right way and (just to impress us) pulled from his pocket a ring.
“Don’t touch it,” he said, satisfied with the shocked stares of the members of our
expedition. “I found it in a puddle last week… It’s a wedding ring.” He paused a few
seconds for effect.“The dead guy’s ring.”
Squatting, engulfed by an enormous sun, Bruno shuffled the dried leaves
around on the ground. When he saw me, he got up quickly and pretended to be
extremely interested in some old twig. Moptop appeared with his hands full of rocks.
He distributed the ammo and moved away. We were playing a game of aiming rocks
at geckos on a tree, but out of fear, disgust, or pity, Moptop only watched, grimacing
at every shot. It didn’t take long for a blow to split one of the geckos down the
middle. Moptop squeezed his eyes shut and turned his face away.
The little creature’s two parts tumbled down the trunk. I stood staring at the
void that separated its head—its eyes were still very much alive—from its tail. Bruno
poked the gecko with a stick: “I wonder if it takes a man this long to die.” I thought
about Chibo in the back seat, in all that silence, and thought that yes, someone could
begin to die very early on (and take days, hours, or years to stop existing). Three
seconds before the attack, the gecko’s eyes had been two black, bulging,
humid dots—those little peanut beetles that get scared whenever we open the jar
and make faces at them. I think it had known what was about to happen; it knew
there was no use calling for help, and froze there with that hangdog look on its face.
That same day, before dark, Moptop whispered that Bruno had-stoned-the-
twerp-hadn’t-told-us- anything. “There, I said it.” Moptop was mad about how
we only ever listened to Bruno and never called him on his crap: for example, “This is
the stiff’s wedding ring, I’m the one who found it.” And just like that, we’d believe him.
According to Moptop’s recent findings, someone had stolen a nuclear
microreactor shaped like a ring (developed by Her Majesty’s official government
research lab) and the Bulgarian spy, codename Bruno, had been singled out to
recover it and eliminate the double agent, codename Dead Guy. He explained this all
with an air of importance and waitedfor my reaction. He could provide more details,
if necessary. He’d been thinking about it all afternoon. I dug at the dirt a little, in
silence, but it was almost night time already, so I didn’t say anything. Moptop stayed
there for awhile, I think.
The wind changed direction.
The next day, sitting in the tree house with the plantation at my feet, I moored
my ships. Some were made from paper, others of wood, painted blue, the paint
peeling off.
I imagined a miniature Chibo in the hatch of one of those boats; he climbed up,
trying out a sailor’s tune, and the beach was right there (I was struggling to secure my
ships). My brother went to handle the ropes, calling me captain. “The island is inhabited,
captain.” He’d call me captain, and this would bring Chibo back. I stood on the deck
of the tree house and made a spyglass with my hand. It was Bruno in the distance.
The Bulgarian spy zig-zagged, examining the plantation grounds inch by inch. Then he
kicked a few rocks and leaned over something: I was struck by the object’s brilliance; a
metal lighter. He picked it up, wiped it on his shirt, put it in his pocket. I took the spyglass
away from my face and turned around, looking for Chibo. But my brother was gone,
he’d disappeared, and a larger wave made our ship pull back.
I waved to Bruno, who closed his eyes and cupped his hands, shouting: “The tree
house needs a door!” He’d been smiling, I think. I leapt forward, flew down the rope
stairs, and jumped on top of him, shouting something random, but Moptop didn’t
follow me, nor did I manage to knock Bruno over. He untangled himself from my
leg, which stubbornly kept trying to trip him (weak-ling, you-sis-sy), and marched
solemnly toward the tree house. I watched the scene from the ground, belly up,
having lost the will to live. Bruno climbed the stairs, squatted and faced Moptop,
who was looking at his thumb cuticle, at the ceiling, back at his thumb cuticle (it was
pretty funny).
Bruno pulled the lighter from his pocket the way police do in dubbed American
films, began to play with the flame, and explained the plan:
We’re gonna have to split up. Moptop goes west, and you, toward the red-allover
tree. My area’s the pond. Nobody talks to nobody. Whoever finds anything
leaves a message at the tree house and marks the nearest cornstalk with a piece of
clothing. Whoever gets captured better keep his mouth shut.
Okay, now let’s make a pact. Any questions?
Bruno flicked the lighter open and toldMoptop to put his finger in the flame. It
stood waiting. He looked to me for help from up in the tree—his eyes were two humid
dots—but I played dead. Whoever’s gonna join the secret service put-your-fingerhere,
’cause that seals the deal. “This is a girl’s game,” Moptop objected, hoping that
I’d agree, but I didn’t do that either— I kept playing dead, pale against the orange of
the ground, ants sprouting from my knees and arms. “So it’s gonna be like that, huh?
You’re gonna be against us?”
I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but Moptop said, “Yes,” very softly,
so softly that I couldn’t tell whether it was a word or a peep. Bruno socked the wall.
“Get outta here,” he said and stuck his finger in the flame. So this was what it was
to be a man.
It was no use insisting, as Moptop did, shouting that the queen of Bulgaria had
just arrived, bringing a top-secret report with her, because, door or no door, Bruno
would spend the afternoon locked in the tree house,refusing all visitors. I bet he
had all the coordinates in his head, the next steps charted out point by point, and
nothing’s worse than when everything’s ready and all that’s left is to attack (the
anxiety). Tired of shouting, Moptop came over to me— but he preferred the shade
because he’s the type that turns pink in the sun. Just like that, from somewhat far
away, he pulled a coin from his ear. He performed some finger acrobatics, the coin
disappeared, and, “psst!,” he beckoned to me. I rubbed my eyes. “Psst!,” Moptop
hissed again and raised his pointer finger to his mouth, signaling for silence. From his
pocket he pulled a crayon and a crumpled-up piece of paper. He drew a phone and
showed it to me: we hadto talk, that’s what it was. He scrawled a bunch of red fruit
+ a watch showing quarter to eleven = two stick figures. He got up without a sound,
shredded the drawings into tiny pieces (he didn’t want to leave any evidence, he’d
explain later), and disappeared.
We met up at the set time, at the place where the plantation surrendered, and
the persimmon trees were victorious for a moment. Moptop held his hand closed
and said, stuttering only once, that we had to stick together until the very end,
that Bruno’s maps were wrong, that he felt a knot in his stomach, and that the
double agent codename Dead Guy could, in fact, be alive and tracing our steps. He
opened his hand and revealed the transmitters, three beta- carotene-type metal
polypropylene capsules that he’d found the day before, in a mound of dirt. They
were either that or pebbles, he concluded, getting up in my face. I backed away
and backed away and backed away. He reached out his hand so I could see better:
“Watch out ’cause they might explode.”
Moptop, his hands all sweaty and his face flushed, had put his shirt on insideout.
One day, he’d cut the collar off an old t-shirt because he felt stifled, and no one had
complained; over time, he’d started tearing the sleeves off other shirts too and
now destroys his entire closet at the beginning of every summer. What Moptop
really wanted, I think, was to get a basketball jersey, the kind pierced with little sieve
holes. His dream was to dribble past Bruno, fly toward the basket and autograph the
youngest kids’ foreheads, but, while picturing it, he’d mess up, put his head into the
sleeve, mix up the sides of his shirt—so that I looked at him and said: “Your shirt’s on
insideout.” That was all I said. In the backseat, Chibo was breathing hard—my brother
hunkered down, his wheels spun in the void, the cables were cut, his wings would
free themselves from the wreckage, and we’d all fall. I already knew that we’d lost
contact with the base, but I didn’t tell Moptop, who looked anxiously at his insideout
shirt, looked at the three small stones in his hand, looked at me.
Falling, falling, more than 20,000 feet, Moptop inserted the transmitters into his
pocket, into the package of gumdrops. It was as if he were archiving the definitive
evidence of the case. Through static I heard Bruno repeating: Moptop goes west.
My area’s the pond. Nobody talks to nobody. Whoever gets captured better—and
he was cut off by a noise, a shrill sound, heavy breathing. Then we started walking,
me and Moptop (and it was an odd day), until we split up. He waved back, then
kept going, singing softly: “The arm is not an arm, the arm is a head.” I went in
the opposite direction, toward the red-all-over tree, “the mouth is not a mouth, the
mouth is a bellybutton,” until the sound fadedaway.

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