Read an Excerpt
The Languor of OFENÍSIA
(whose importance must not be judged by the brevity of her appearance)
"In this year of headlong progress . . ." (FROM AN ILHÉUS NEWSPAPER OF 1925)
OF THE SUN AND THE RAIN AND A SMALL MIRACLE
IN THAT YEAR of 1925, when the idyll of the mulatto girl Gabriela and Nacib the Arab began, the rains continued long beyond the proper and necessary season. Whenever two planters met in the street, they would ask each other, with fear in their eyes and voices:
"How long can this keep up?"
Never had they seen so much rain. It fell day and night, almost without pause.
"One more week and we may lose everything."
"The entire crop . . ."
"God help us!"
The crop gave promise of being the biggest in history. With cacao prices constantly rising, this would mean greater wealth, prosperity, abundance. It would mean the most expensive schools in the big cities for the colonels' sons, homes in the town's new residential sections, luxurious furniture from Rio, grand pianos for the parlors, more and better-stocked stores, a business boom, liquor flowing in the cabarets, more women arriving in the ships, lots of gambling in the bars and hotels--in short, progress, more of the civilization everyone was talking about.
But this unending downpour might ruin everything. And to think that only a few months earlier the colonels were anxiously scanning the sky for clouds, hoping and praying for rain. All through southern Bahia the cacao trees had been shedding their flower, replacing it with the newly born fruit. Without rain this fruit would have soon perished.
The procession on St. George's Day had taken on the aspect of a desperate mass appeal to the town's patron saint. The gold-embroidered litter bearing the image of the saint was carried on the shoulders of the town's most important citizens, the owners of the largest plantations, dressed in the red gowns of the lay brotherhood. This was significant, for the cacao colonels ordinarily avoided religious functions. Attendance at Mass or confession they considered a sign of moral weakness. Church-going, they maintained, was for women.
Not that the colonels played no part in the religious life of the community. Their role, as they saw it, was to provide funds, upon request of the Bishop or the local priests, for church buildings and activities. They financed the parochial school for girls, the episcopal residence, catechism classes, novenas, the month of Mary, charity bazaars, and the feasts of St. Anthony and St. John.
That year, instead of spending St. George's Day swilling in bars, there they all were, walking contritely in the procession, each with a candle in his hand, promising the saint everything in the world in exchange for the precious rains. The crowd followed the litters through the streets, praying along with the priests.
Adorned in his vestments, hands joined, face touched with compunction, Father Easilio led the prayers in his sonorous voice. He had been chosen for this important function not only because of his professional capacity but also because he was himself a plantation owner and therefore had a special interest, not shared by his colleagues, in divine intervention. He could be relied upon to pray with all the strength at his command.
Father Basílio's exaltation inspired transports of ecstasy in the old maids clustered around the image of Mary Magdalene. They could hardly recognize in him the indifferent priest whose Masses were breathtakingly short and who listened so inattentively to their long confessions--unlike Father Cecílio, for example.
The priest's vigorous and self-interested voice rose high in ardent prayer. So did the nasal soprano of the old maids and the mixed chorus of colonels and their families, tradesmen and their employees, exporters, workers from the country come to town for the occasion, longshoremen, sailors, prostitutes, professional gamblers and assorted good-for-nothings, the boys of the catechism classes, and the girls of the Daughters of Mary. The prayer rose to the diaphanous, cloudless sky, with its pitiless sun--a murderous ball of fire set on destroying the newborn sprouts of cacao pods.
At the latest ball of the Progress Club, some ladies prominent in local society had agreed to walk barefoot in the procession, and they were now fulfilling this promise, offering the saint their elegance as a rain sacrifice. Further delay on his part was wholly inadmissible. He could see the affliction of his people, he could hear their appeals--all sorts of desperate promises in exchange for a quick miracle.
Nor did St. George remain unaffected by their prayers, the sudden and inspiring piety of the colonels, and the ladies' bruised feet. Doubtless he was touched especially by the anguish of Father Basilio. The priest was so fearful of the fate of his cacao that, between prayers, he swore to give up the sweet favors of his housekeeper Otália for the entire month. She had borne five children--three girls and two boys, all as sturdy and promising as Father Basílio's cacao trees. She had wrapped them in cambric and lace and carried them to the baptismal font, where the priest became their godfather. He could not adopt them but, in Christian charity, he let them have his family name--Cerqueira, a fine and honorable name.
Indeed, how could St. George remain indifferent to such affliction here in his own land, the land whose destiny he had been directing, for good or ill, since early colonial days? As a token of friendship, the king of Portugal had given the region, with its savages and brazilwood trees, to one Jorge de Figueiredo Correia. This gentleman, however, preferred the pleasures of the court at Lisbon to the hardships of the wilderness. In his stead he sent his Spanish brother-in-law, who, at his suggestion, placed the region under the protection of the donee's namesake, St. George. Thus it was that the holy killer of dragons, astride his horse on the moon, had been following the history of this land for more than four hundred years. He saw the Indians massacre the first colonists and in turn be slaughtered and enslaved. He saw the building of sugar mills and a little planting of coffee. And for many years he saw his land unprosperous and stagnant. Then came the first cacao seedlings, and the saint, seeing them, ordered the kinkajous to undertake the large-scale propagation of cacao trees. Perhaps he was tired of looking at the same landscape for so long and had no purpose in mind other than to change it a little. Quite possibly it never occurred to him that cacao would bring wealth and a new era in the history of his land.
Then the saint saw frightful things happen: men killed one another for possession of hills, rivers, and valleys; they burned the forests and feverishly planted acre on acre of cacao. He saw the region suddenly develop, with towns and villages. He saw progress come to Ilhéus and, along with it, a bishop. He saw ships arriving with passengers. He saw so many things that he thought he could no longer be much impressed by anything. But he was wrong: the unexpected and profound devotion of the colonels moved him deeply. After all, they were uncultivated men, little given to law or to prayer. And he was impressed by that mad promise of Father Basilio Cerqueira, a man impulsive and incontinent by nature, so impulsive and incontinent, indeed, that the saint doubted whether he could really keep such a promise for a whole month.
When the procession arrived at St. Sebastian Square and stopped before the little white church; when Nacib the Arab came out of his deserted bar to enjoy the spectacle; when Gloria, smiling from her notorious window, crossed herself--it was then that the miracle happened. No, black clouds did not suddenly fill the sky, rain did not immediately begin to fall; for this, as the saint knew, would have spoiled the procession. But a pale moon appeared, clearly visible despite the blinding brightness of the sun. The first to notice it was Tuísca, a little Negro boy. He called it to the attention of his employers, the Dos Reis sisters. They shouted "miracle." From them the cry spread to the other black-clad old maids, then to the rest of the crowd, then to the entire city. For two days no one spoke of anything else. St. George had heard their prayers; the rains would soon come.
And they did come, early one evening a few days after the procession. But apparently St. George was excessively affected by the prayers, the ladies' bare feet, and the promises, including Father Basílio's incredible vow of chastity. For he provided a superabundance of rain. It had already continued two weeks beyond the rainy season. If it lasted a week or ten days longer, the entire record-breaking crop would be ruined. The situation was desperate. Candles were lit on the altars of St. George, St. Sebastian, and Mary Magdalene, and even on the altar of Our Lady of Victory in the cemetery chapel.
And then, at four o'clock one morning, a planter--known as Colonel Manuel of the Jaguars because his plantations were out in the wilds where the roars of jaguars could still be heard-- stepped out of his house in Ilhéus and saw a clear sky, with a glow over the ocean joyfully announcing the sun. He raised his arms to heaven and cried out in immense relief:
"At last! At last!"
Early every nuorning a group of old acquaintances met down at the fish market near the waterfront. Colonel Manuel was always the first to arrive, yet this morning he fairly ran to the meeting-place as if all the others were already there eagerly awaiting his wonderful news. He smiled in anticipation.
The record crop was saved and cacao prices were rising. But this was only one of the circumstances that made the 1925--1926 harvest year, in the opinion of many, the most significant in the history of the region. To some, it was primarily the year of the controversy about the sandbar in the harbor. To others, it was the year of the political struggle between Mundinho Falcão, cacao exporter, and Colonel Ramiro Bastos, the old political boss. Still others remember it chiefly for the sensational trial of Colonel Jesuíno Mendonça, or for the arrival of a Swedish ship to carry cacao, for the first time, directly from Ilhéus to foreign countries. But no one speaks of it as the year of the love of Nacib and Gabriela. Yet, in an important sense, the story of their passion was central to the entire life of the town at this time when progress and the innovations of civilization were transforming the face of Ilhéus.
OF THE MIXTURE OF PAST AND FUTURE IN THE STREETS OF ILHÉUS
The prolonged rains had turned the roads and streets into quagmires, churned daily by the hooves of pack animals and saddle horses.
For a time, even the recently opened highway from Ilhéus to Itabuna was impassable: small bridges were washed away and some stretches of road were so muddy that drivers turned back. Before the coming of the rains, Jacob the Russian and his young partner, Moacir Estrela, had organized a transportation company and had ordered four small buses from the south to operate over the new road between the two principal cacao markets. The trip by train took three hours when there was no delay; by bus it could be made in an hour and a half.
Jacob owned some trucks that hauled cacao from Itabuna to Ilhéus. Moacir Estrela had opened a garage in town; he, too, worked with trucks. They joined forces, borrowed some money from a bank, and ordered the buses. They tacked notices on poles throughout the town announcing the early establishment of the bus line with quicker and cheaper service than by train. Then they rubbed their hands in anticipation of profitable business. That is, the Russian rubbed his hands. Moacir just whistled.
But the buses were late in coming, and when they were finally unloaded from a small Lloyd Brasileiro freighter before the admiring eyes of the townspeople, the rains were at their peak and the road was in miserable condition. Even the wooden bridge over the Cachoeira River, the very heart of the highway, was threatened by the rising water. The partners decided to postpone the inauguration of the line. The new buses remained in the garage for nearly two months while the Russian cursed in an unknown language and Moacir whistled angrily. The notes fell due at the bank and, if Mundinho Falcão had not come to the rescue, the business would have failed before it had started. It was Mundinho himself who asked the Russian to come to his office and volunteered to let him have the needed funds, without interest. For Mundinho Falcão not only believed in the progress of Ilhéus: he sought to promote it.
With the lessening of the rains the river had gone down, and although the weather continued bad, Jacob and Moacir repaired some of the small bridges at their own expense, dumped crushed rock on the worst spots in the road, and started running the buses. The inaugural trip, with Moacir himself driving, provided an occasion for speeches and jocularity. All the passengers were guests: the Mayor, Mundinho Falcão and other exporters, Colonel Ramiro Bastos and other planters, lawyers, physicians, and the gentlemen known respectively as the Captain and the Doctor. Some, fearful of the road conditions, offered various excuses. Their places were eagerly taken by others. In some cases, indeed, two took the place of one, so that in the end several of the passengers had to stand. The trip took two hours--the road was still very bad--but all went well. Upon the arrival of the bus in Itabuna there were fireworks and a luncheon. The Russian then announced that, after a couple of weeks of regular bus service, he would invite the leading citizens of both towns to a banquet at Nacib's place in Ilhéus to celebrate this milestone on the road of local progress.
Progress was the word heard most often in Ilhéus and Itabuna at that time. It was on everyone's lips. It appeared constantly in the daily and weekly newspapers. It came up again and again in the discussions at the Model Stationery Store and in the bars and cabarets. The townspeople repeated it in connection with the new streets, the new parks, the new buildings in the business center (including the four-story branch building of the Bank of Brazil), the modern homes at the beach, the printing plant of the Ilhéus Daily, the buses leaving every morning and afternoon for Itabuna, the trucks hauling cacao, the brightly illuminated night spots, the new Ilhéus Cine-Theatre, the soccer field, Dr. Enoch's school, the hungry lecturers from Bahia and even from Rio, and the Progress Club with its tea dances. "It's progress!" They said it proudly, for they felt they all were contributing to the town's modern appearance and way of life.
In short, the town was losing the armed-camp atmosphere that had characterized it during the violent days of the struggle for the land. Planters on horseback with pistols in their belts, hired assassins clutching their revolvers as they roamed the muddy (or dusty) streets, gunshots filling the turbulent nights with fear, peddlers spreading their wares on the sidewalks--all this was disappearing. The town glittered with bright and colorful shop windows; many new stores were being opened; the peddlers traveled about the country and appeared in Ilhéus only at the weekly open-air markets. Bars, cabarets, movies, schools. A land of little religion, its people were nevertheless proud of its promotion to a diocese and welcomed their first bishop with memorable festivities. Planters, exporters, bankers, businessmen--all gave money for the building of the parochial school for girls and for the episcopal residence, both on Conquista Hill. They gave money also for the establishment of the Progress Club, an organization of business and professional men led by Mundinho Falcão, where Sunday tea dances and now and then a ball were held. Soccer clubs and the Rui Barbosa Literary Society were organized. Ilhéus began to be known as the Queen of Southern Bahia, an area of the state dominated by cacao. The cultivation of this crop was immensely piofitable; fortunes grew and so did Ilhéus, the cacao capital.
But the streets still revealed, along with the progress and future greatness, some remnants of the recent past, of the time of bandits and bloodshed. Trains of pack donkeys, bringing cacao to the exporters' warehouses, still invaded the business center, mingling with the trucks that were beginning to replace them. Men wearing boots and carrying guns still were seen; fights broke out in alleys; known assassins pushed people around in cheap bars and occasionally murdered someone right out in the street. These characters mingled on the clean pavements with prosperous exporters, elegantly clothed by tailors who came down to Ilheus from the city of Bahia; with innumerable loud-spoken traveling salesmen, who knew all the latest jokes; with physicians, lawyers, dentists, agronomists, engineers, who arrived by every boat. Many planters no longer wore boots or carried weapons but went about peacefully, building good homes, living in town part of the time, and enrolling their sons in Enoch's school or sending them to boarding school in Bahia. Their wives visited the plantation only during holidays, wore silks and high-heeled shoes, and went to parties at the Progress Club.