“I, Sebastião Luiz Paulo, am Brazilian, age 17, with no official papers. I live in
Colinas, Tocantins, in the care of my great grandmother, at Rua 18 de Setembro
(no number). My father, Valdir, is dead and my mother, Zenaide, lives with
Raimundo Soares and works on the Volkswagen farm between Redenção and
Santana do Araguaia.
He was offering good money for work on a farm in the south of Pará, in the
municipality of Xinguara, so me and another 22 workers, including two minors, got
on a cattle truck and went to Lagoa das Antas Farm, which belonged to Luiz Pires,
in Xinguara. When we got there, we met the gato [cat] Fagoió, João Moaramas’
accountant, who took us to Flor da Mata Farm, which also belonged to Luiz Pires,
300 km away. We were taken by plane.
After clearing several hectares of regrowth and 20 km of field borders, I saw
a dangerous scene with an under-age worker who must have been about 10, who
was just looking out for himself: one Friday he wore some borrowed boots to work
because he didn’t want to buy a pair for 20 reais. He was afraid of getting into debt
and not being able to leave, but then they said he’d stolen the boots and the gato
Fagoió took him to the same abandoned shack we’d stayed in when we arrived
on Flor da Mata Farm, and they beat him with the side of a knife, then they got a
38., pointed it at him and told him to run without looking back, and he ran into the
forest and I never saw him again.
In witness whereof, I set hereunto my hand (fingerprint)
Tucumã, 15.8.97...” (1)
Forest, forest, forest, echoes of green and fear. The branches scratching his dry
face. Blood everywhere. His bare little boy’s feet run unprotected towards the
darkness of an unknown forest. Where is the hope that was here? The ‘cat’ got it.
At some point in the past I’d heard stories from Grandma Tonha’s withered
mouth. It was incredible, but not even hunger managed to silence her way of looking
at things. She saw green where the land was parched, food on empty plates,
flowers on dry branches. People said she was senile, but everyone loved to gather
around to listen to her stories about all kinds of things. And it was cause of one of
her stories that I wanted to hop on that truck to the farm where I was going to be
Sitting on a rock, Grandma Tonha would tell my favourite story over and over.
Once upon a time there was a miller who had three sons. All he had in the world
was a small mill, a mule and a cat. When he saw that his time had come, he called
together his three sons and gave the mill to the oldest, the mule to the second and
the cat to the youngest. The youngest was upset, because the cat was worthless,
but the cat told him that if he bought him a pair of boots and a bag, he’d prove
that he was much more useful than the mill and the mule. And that’s exactly what
happened: the clever cat managed to make his master into a Marquis, to get rich,
to marry the king’s daughter and to live happily ever after.
I grew up hearing Grandma Tonha’s story, certain that I, even though I was the
oldest child, was the Marquis of Marabá and that only the cat, which I didn’t have,
knew it. My father took off into the world. My mother with one more in her belly was
too much for him. And she ended up on her own, with us, her six and a half children.
There was still no school. But I had a friend. João. I adored him. Sometimes
he’d teach me things, sometimes I taught him. Things we worked out on our own,
not from books, cause he didn’t have any either. I taught him how to make a firefly
lantern and he taught me how to catch flies midair. I taught him how to be a goalkeeper
and he taught me to pray.
João was the only one who knew I was the Marquis of Marabá. Him and the
cat I didn’t have. I told him that as soon as my inheritance arrived, I’d take him to
live on my land. My wife, the princess, would have a princess friend, who would
marry João, who would also be rich and live happily ever after.
One day we were playing football in the field, when we saw a lot of people go
hurrying past. We followed them. There was a man talking in a loud voice
and saying really good things. He said he knew where there was decent work for
everyone and you could make a lot of money. I looked him up and down. He was
big, almost fat, with a hat on his head, a thin moustache and hair touching his
shoulders. He was wearing huge boots. It was the gato Barbosa. He was there to
help everyone get rich.
I told João that we had to go with him on that truck no matter what. João was
scared and remained so, even after I reminded him of the story about the marquis.
I called him a chicken. I said I was going to talk to my mother and his and ask them
to talk to the gato Barbosa. I did, and my mother learned that there was decent
work for us on the farm. I was sure I was going to come back rich.
João’s dad had gone to work on a farm far away, somewhere over Pará way,
which nobody knew where it was. João said his dad had said he wouldn’t have
gone if he’d had land to plant on, but seeing as how he had no education, he had
to go work with an axe. His mother, who stayed behind with the children and her
wicker work, just waited for him. The money she earned from the sale of her wares,
which was next to nothing, didn’t go very far. João was the middle child of five.
I think that’s why she didn’t mind him going. One less mouth to feed. And the
gato Barbosa also gave her and my mother some money to help out. So she just
thanked her son, who had resigned himself to the idea, and went to fetch him a
little flour and sugar for a journey with no tears.
I had nothing to take except my shoes with the toes cut out with a knife cause
my feet had grown, a pair of trousers and my shirt. No food, there was none to be had,
just water. I gave my mother and Grandma Tonha a kiss. I was so happy that when the
truck arrived I flashed a smile at the gato Barbosa, who I was beginning to like.
There were lots of people in the back of the truck. It sped down the highway.
João was quiet, huddled in a corner. I could have sworn he was praying, but I
didn’t ask. Then I realized he was feeling queasy and he threw up on me. I think it
was the smell of cow dung and the endless shaking. I thought I’d best give him some
water and talk a lot. The engine was very noisy, so I actually had to shout. I shouted
some stories I’d learned from Grandma Tonha. I made up some others. It worked.
João’s face became less pale and his eyes went back to their normal green.
That was the funny thing about him. He was like a spotty jaguar: kind of reddish
hair, mud-coloured freckles all over his face and eyes that changed colour.
When he was afraid, they were grey. When he was hungry, yellow. Listening to
stories, green. But angry, I never saw.
I was quite a lot bigger and older too I think, but in a way I always thought
João was better than me. And I’m talking about simple things. For example, if I
didn’t feel like playing football, I didn’t play. But not him. He was capable of playing
even if he didn’t want to just so he wouldn’t have to say no. And he was like that
The trip took ages. When my first hunger pangs came, João gave me some of
his sugar and flour, which didn’t last us long. After the longest long time, we came
to a huge farm, with a name I can’t remember very well. Then I got such a good
surprise that I was even happier. We were greeted by another gato, called Spark,
who took us even closer to our dream, and by plane.
My fear was mixed with joy. I’d always dreamed of flying on a plane, but I knew
that only the very rich did it and of course it was a sign of what awaited us. João’s
eyes turned a yellowy-grey. I noticed, but pretended not to. He whispered, ‘Tonho,
I’m scared. I don’t want to go in that thing.’ I told him that he had to get used to
being rich and that rich people went around in planes. And besides, he was going
to see everything from high up in the sky, like a bird. I said it must be so beautiful
and that it was like the flying carpet in the story. He said that flying carpets didn’t
fall and I tried to calm him down from inside my own fear. He pleaded with his eyes
and said, ‘Tonho, I don’t think I want to be rich.’
I talked to him for quite some time about how amazing it was to fly. Time
enough to convince myself. It was no use. He just stared at me with grey eyes when
we boarded the plane. We didn’t exchange a word. I was so scared that my throat
went dry and silent. That always happened when I was in agony. I didn’t look out
the window. I didn’t move. The plane left the ground.
I saw that João was praying quietly to himself: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven...’
and I thought quietly: ‘We’re up here too... We’re up here too.’ That was all I knew.
I couldn’t think about anything but Grandma Tonha. About her, about Saint
Anthony next to the bed and about the vision. It was a stormy night. My mother
was in labour. Grandma, between her legs, hands outstretched, waiting for the
grandson that didn’t come. My mother howled, perspired, panted and bled. No
grandson. ‘He’s a breech, darling, stay calm. Nothing to worry about. It’s worth it.’
The baby didn’t come. Grandma watched her daughter losing her strength
and her life. No grandson in sight. That was when the flash of lightning came and
The rain stopped, the wind stopped, everything stopped. From beside the
bed, Saint Anthony smiled at my mother, who didn’t see him. But Grandma Tonha
says she saw him and even spoke to him and promised that the breech baby would
be named Antônio, after him. And that was how I got my name.
I never asked my namesake for anything. I never had to. But planes are things of
the heavens, and that’s a different story. And all I could do was repeat over and over
in my head: ‘Anthony, Anthony, Anthony... Grandma’s saint, please don’t let us fall.’
I stayed like that for longer than I can remember. Long enough to pluck up the
courage to look out the window and see everything small and green below us. I
told João to look too and we sat there together, peering down like birds, unafraid,
the rest of the way.
Then I thought it all went quite fast. I could’ve gone on peering down, but the
plane arrived on the ground and we were told to get out, cause our destination