ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 03

Afar in the backlands

Author | Autor: Nelson Cruz

Translated by Flora Thomson DeVeaux | Illustrated by Nelson Cruz

There was Tião Leite, Santana, Sebastião de Jesus, Gregório, Big Manuel,
Bindoia, Chico Moreira, me, and João Rosa. And Aquiles, too, a guitar
player. Ah, and a kid who got left out. He didn’t wind up in the story, he
was a boy, but he came along every day, he oughta have been in it.
- Zito

“Hey, boy!”
That’s always what they call me. I don’t know just when I got to Sirga Farm,
or if I was born round here. If I came from Três Marias, Aquenta Sol, Funil, or Jatai,
I can’t say. But since I can recall livin’ things, that’s what they call me.
“Hey, boy!”
And me, in my silence, I’m always watching the cowhands. They call me an
apprentice and that’s what I am. I still don’t know much about cowhand life, but on
the hunts, I’m quiet and careful not to scare off the animals. Round the bonfire, on
dark nights, I listen well to the stories with no end.

“Hey, boy!”
Leaning on the corral fence, I turn, fast, to see Zito’s lasso stretching out in
the air, heading for those horns. The bull puts up a fight, shaking its horns all over,
but, eta! The lasso got him. The cowhand tips his hat, acknowledging the applause.
The men work on herding and separating the cattle. Tomorrow, real early, they
take the herd on to São Francisco Farm, in Araçaí, over in Sete Lagoas.
But today there’s a Mass at Big Manuel’s chapel, where Zito and Chico Barbosa
put up a big cross.
And afterwards, there’s the festa.

On the road, I can hear the first fireworks announcing the auction and the
start of the festivities. I squeeze the bay between my knees, spurring it on.
The Mass is already over, but the chapel’s full, and there are lots of folks
outside wanting to see the Holy One.
Between people’s legs I can see inside the chapel, all decorated, with Our
Lady of Perpetual Help. It’s an ugly picture of her, poor thing. But from up there,
she blesses those who are going to go on the cattle drive the next day. Behind me
I hear Chico Moreira, the head of the drive, whispering to Big Manuel, asking him
to take care of his cousin and not let the cowhands bother the man, the writer and
diplomat João Guimarães Rosa. When he got to Sirga Farm, he seemed like an odd
fellow. He was a doctor, but he wouldn’t let the cowhands call him sir.

So they started calling him João Rosa. And he liked it. After thirty-five days
living alongside the folks on the farm, he was already broken in, as Big Manuel
said. He talked and acted just like the people from around there. But the notebook
hanging around his neck made everyone stare.
Big Manuel seemed fixed on the idea of João Rosa going along on the drive.
“I can take city folk for a couple days, Chico. But just a couple.”

“Hey, boy!”
I turned and saw Chico Moreira looking at me.
“You need a cattle-drive christening! Want to come with us as far as Araçaí?”
My heart jumped hard.
“Want to come along on the drive?”
I had to hear the question twice before I said yes. Behind him, Big Manuel and
Zito exchanged looks. Now it was a kid’s turn. It was my turn.
I ran out of the little chapel and threw my hat in the air, I was so happy. The
fireworks burst along with my racing heart. In the midst of rockets I heard the
guitar players, and the cowhands dancing a recortado. I ran over and joined my
small steps alongside their big ones. João Rosa was in the middle, accompanying
Chico’s lively fiddle with his feet and his claps.
On the other side of the square, Aquiles was the reigning champion of the
singing challenges and the lundus. Nobody can keep up with his improvised
rhymes. Big Manuel told stories on the edge of the group. Around midnight, the
Moon was already small in the middle of the sky. I fell asleep hearing the cowhands’
conversations and songs.

Just before the sun rose, Zito blew on the big horn. He was the first one up,
and he had already made the first meal of the trip. From inside the barn we could
already smell the beans and rice.
One by one, the cowhands served themselves with their plates and gourds.
We also got jerky and manioc meal. João Rosa didn’t want any. He just ate a little
biscuit and drank a cup of milk. Worried, Big Manuel said, “Cattle drives are hard
work. Gonna need something heavy in you.”
João Rosa says that this is what he eats every morning. He’s used to it. The
head herdsman looked away, distrustful.

That’s how our first lunch was, at six-thirty in the fresh chill of that May
morning. Soon we’d get our gear together, saddle the horses, and begin the
journey to Araçaí.
It’s ten o’clock and Chico Moreira gives the order for the cattle drive to set
out. Big Manuel is head herdsman, the boss of the cowhands. He calls out, watchful:
“Let’s round ‘em up slow, so the cattle don’t spook! Hey, bull! Heeeey-bull-hey!
Tchu! Tchu!”
Three cowhands work in the corral to keep the cattle from circling round and
breaking the rhythm of the roundup. In the back, two young bulls start butting
each other.
Chico Moreira calls out to the hand. “Hey, Santana! Don’t let him go round!”
Santana lays in with his cattle prod.
“Huh! Big fella! Get off of there!”
“Watch out for the angry one!” yells someone else. “Hey-ey, bull!”
Suddenly, the well-aimed kick to the cowhand’s chest. He falls back practically
unconscious, while the men run to get the animal away and help the old cowhand.
They hold him up and take him over to the kitchen in the house.
The gate opens up. A wave of horns and humps goes past before us. It looks
like a parade. They moo loudly as they come out, pushing on all sides. They don’t like
the idea of leaving. They’re pressed up so tight, they’re practically riding each other.
The way the cowhands herd them, the work looks like another festa. Big
Manuel’s voice comes my way.
“Hey, boy, go round the flanks to keep the herd from spreading out too much!”
This is my first order from a cowhand.
I hold my prod and close in on the cattle on the edges.
“Follow the rest, fella! Hey, big bull! Hey!”
At the same time, I watch the cowhands, their prods moving through the air.
João Rosa is a good horseman atop Balalaika the mule.
At the head of all of them is Chico Moreira.

With the cattle quiet, he wants to avoid a stampede. That’s why he doubled
the number of hands on the roundup. Zito blows the horn up ahead; the cattle take
the lead while the flank riders keep the others from spreading out. The animals
funnel out, forming a procession and following the road. When we reach the
foothills, the extra hands go back to the Sirga. The cowhands Quim and Levindo
go on with the group.

The May sky is blue and the green of the grass covers the slopes. The flowers
grow in cascades down the trunks of the buriti trees. They are full of birds, orioles
and parrots. The birds sing and sing, giving the trails more life.
Sometimes, a fed-up bull tries to lunge at someone. Then the cowhand will
lift his prod, without flinching.
“Settle down, bull-cow! Hey, tchu! Tchu! Hey!”
Up ahead, Zito sets the route for the rest of the group. A bit farther behind,
Bindoia rhymes as he goes and entertains everyone.
Sometimes, a cow will break ranks and go over to savor the herbs by the side
of the trail. Then a hand will come along, ordering, “Go on, milky!! Hey-oh!”
The cow shakes its head and bares its teeth, ready to fight back.
“She’s making a face!” I say.

We get to Vereda da Ponte Firme. By now, we’ve gone three leagues. At the spring,
we drink and wait for the cattle to graze. They were starving. I look at the landscape and
the blue-green of the mountains: it’s a mixture of land and sky. The cattle get smeared
with the mud of the pasture and the charcoal from the burned buriti trunks.
Just then, I see that João Rosa leaves and comes back right away with a leaf or
a fruit. He asks the cowhands something, especially Zito and Big Manuel. I get closer
to find out what it is, and for the first time I see the notebook hung around his neck.
He called the cows and asked the cowhands about the birds. He took notes
and then called the cows. He asked about the names of plants, and their colors,
and he wrote, and he called the cows.
He came back and asked why the clouds were that way, or why a certain
plant was that color. The cowhands patiently explained and he, there on the mule,
wrote everything down in his notebook.
Big Manuel orders us to go on. We will go by the Vereda do José Grosso, and
from there, he says, we’ll pass through a bad stretch of scrubland with barbed wire
fences on both sides of the trail.

At three twenty-five that afternoon, we pass by the Vereda da Tolda, our next
stop. The cowhands talk about the little stream diverted through the kitchen of
the house.
“It’s a rarity,” says Big Manuel.
The cowhands agree.
We start to smell something sweet and strange. João Rosa asks Bindoia
where the smell is coming from.
“It’s the cattle’s hooves, wearing down on the stones.”
The writer stops his mule and writes down the cowhand’s answer in his notebook.

We spy the first leaves of the farm’s ancient gameleira tree. The house appears
bit by bit, under the enormous tree. Zito’s horn announces our arrival, and soon the
gates are opened and the cattle pour into the corrals.

Thiers, the owner, comes over to see Chico Moreira, and greets João Rosa
and the cowhands. The saddles are hung up on the fence, next to three cages of
parrots and a half-built barn.
Behind the group, I see the famous brook running around the cornfield. It’s
been diverted in a wooden channel to pass through the kitchen. Those who hadn’t
already seen it admire the spring. There, I will quench my thirst.
Just then, Chico Moreira calls João Rosa into the house. Big Manuel says that
they’ll be staying in the bedroom at the back.

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