The first dark drops of night had begun to fall on the stifling afternoon heat. Zoideva appeared at Gervásio's shack, carrying in his hands a large bundle of clothes:
He was pretty drunk, but that was nothing new. Otherwise he wouldn't have been Zoideva, a fixture in those mining regions' brawls and bars. Now he was in no state to threaten anyone. Zoideva wanted in at a party António was throwing for the boys out at Darguém. Its aim was to break up the nightly monotony of murdanga drums, harmoniums and grunting monkeys with a dance band, drinks brought in from afar and whatever else might be needed...
“Did you hear? Whatever else's needed. Ha-ha! That's a good one. There's plenty of things I want. And it's not António who'll give them to me. Ha-ha! But this little party is going to be a cracker. It won't cost us a paisa either. António is one of a kind.”
He insisted that Gervásio go too.
“Some Christian women from town are coming, good people you'll enjoy meeting. You won't regret the trek over. Darguém. You know where it is. It's not far.”
Gervásio was dog-tired. He had spent all day in the roasting heat, shuttling back and forth between the docks and the mine, inspecting his men's work then berating their laziness for his boss to see everything was in hand. Yet he started getting ready, to flee the chronic boredom drifting up from the red dust and the muddy water, from everything around him. At night, once the machines stopped, a muggy silence would settle on the earth. There was no poetry to it, not even on moonlit nights, and nothing could dispel either the torpor of the men or the excessive caution of the women.
“Their dance nights are something you won't forget, you'll see. António splashes out. A real friend to the little people he is, which is only natural, since they're who made him his fortune. But they're not all like António. Take Ratanlal, who's an ass. That's the way it is. You have to try one of António's lightning bolts. He's a past master at making them.”
“Lightning bolts? What are they?”
“A really fine mix of every drink you can imagine. António is the only one who knows the measures. You knock one back and your blood starts to boil. They get you right in the mood. I can knock back a dozen. Now, hurry up and get changed. He-he!”
Zoideva hid the dirt on his shirt and trousers with a red capodd so gaudy it stung the eyes. After downing the contents of a little bottle he had, chewing a large wad of betel and donning his burlesque mask, he set off with his friend along the trail to Darguém, crossing half a dozen creeks and various hills that had been gutted by the miners.
The way ahead was already dark. Zoideva, however, sliced through the thick black as if strolling down a well-lit avenue, chatting incessantly and turning often to face his companion, who hung back, fearful of the spiny brambles that hampered his steps and which, drawn taut by roughened hands, lashed out at his body.
“Ha-ha! Are you afraid of snakes? Have no fear. You used to see plenty. It was a real breeding ground round here. Thick like the trunks of areca trees they were, hissing day and night. Now, what with the mines, they're disappearing. People kill them, the poor things. Snakes have a right to live too. It's hell if they bite though; their venom is deadly. You have to get the blood out straight away and cover the wound with some leaves I know. I've saved a lot of people in my time. Snakes bite if you tread on them. Otherwise, they're harmless. Just like me. I can't stand it when people tread me down and take what's mine. I just can't stand it. Don't you agree? That's just it! I don't like meddling in other people's lives. I've never meddled. So I get riled up worse than a snake, and with more poison too. Don't you think I'm right? It's the way I've always been and there's nobody that can condemn me for that. We've almost at Darguém now. You can see the glow of lights. Just an hour more.”
“A bit less. But it'll be worth it. I'll show you a girl you'll have a good time with. And you'll see the machines António has had sent over from Europe. Ha-Ha! You're lagging behind. Do you want a piggy-back?”
“Piggy-back my eye!”
Zoideva had never shown any inclination for this sort of entertainment. What could he want amongst the brouhaha in Darguém? António, it seemed, had asked him to perform a regional dance in honour of the cityfolk and afterwards he needed to visit a relative who lived over in Zoranim. Gervásio had no idea that Zoideva knew anything about dance numbers, and began to suspect that what drew him to Darguém was Catarina, a flirty girl he had been seeing but who now spurned him for a certain Thomas, a fugitive from Madras who was as black as coal.
“Do you know how to dance, Zoideva?”
“Dance? I danced like you Christians once. Two steps forward, two steps back, that's the way, isn't it?”
“You'd stay rooted to the spot, man.”
“Well then, three forward, two back. This one time I danced with a girl, a friend of mine. She said I was the best dancer in the room.”
“What do you mean, Catarina? Do you think she's the only person I know?
Catarina is old news. I've got others on the go now. I just wish you'd seen the girl I'm talking about. She was just so…A real bombshell. Died crushed by a rock over in Silti. Didn't even get the chance to shriek.”
They walked on in silence for some time. The lights from Darguém lit the low clouds in the heavy May sky. The wind had hushed. Zoideva, forced by the heat, had gathered the cloth of his capodd up round his waist in some grotesque imitation of a hermaphrodite, flaunting his stout legs, undershorts and the bulge of his false breasts.
In Darguém, when the revellers saw Zoideva's mask and his exaggerated show of womanly curves, the two men were met with raucous laughter. The band even played a wedding march. Everyone wanted to know the identity of the masked newcomer. Unable to contain himself, Zoideva brought his dance routine forward, breaking all the rules and bouncing around with moves that made the city ladies choke with laughter.
“What did you reckon?” - he closed in on Gervásio to ask his opinion.
“Excellent. I didn't expect you to be such a hit. You're quite the dancer. I'm surprised, I must say.”
“No doubt about it.”
“Good. Very good. But you've hardly touched a drop I see. Have a drink and a dance. See that girl over there with the plaits? She's a doll, isn't she? I'm going to dance with her now. I know the boss has cast his eye in that direction, but he's not making much headway. The other one, standing next to her, is Pedrito's girl. Pedrito's in a manner of speaking, since she's also going with Alberto. The one in yellow might look like a saint, but one morning they found her with the man who operates the machines round here. See the gold she has on her wrists? Her father struck ore near their house then hauled it over to the rail track. Hauled it over there with his daughters' help. The ore was first class. He sold it to Premnath. Now he's a few thousand to the good. He can make investments, if he wants. The other one who's drinking with António is Caetano, a greenhorn, a sucker. Made a couple of thousand smuggling watches, pens and maybe gold. He wanted to buy Premnath's hill and get in on the mining business. He-he! The hill was worthless. I knew already. Premnath had dug a few holes out and filled them with samples. Imagine that. The girl who saved Caetano is inside. She's well known in these parts… The man had a lucky break; otherwise he would have put a bullet in his own head like Daruwalla, who sunk thousands into Tamli hill without ever finding a sign of ore. His wife? She disappeared. Only the daughter stayed. It's a crying shame, but what can you do? What's this? Aren't you drinking? No drink, no dancing. Make the most of it, man. This happens to be some of the finest brandy around. Why don't you ask one of those girls to step out? See how the one at the front can't take her eyes off you? Don't be an idiot.”
Afterwards, and for the duration of the party, Gervásio saw Zoideva chatting away happily, causing uproar amongst the women, pulling young girls' hair, repeating his dance steps all over the place and, what was worse, downing cups and cups of cheap wine as if it were water. Judging by his behaviour, Catarina's disdain and Thomas's triumph no longer affected him. He had spoken to her in friendly tones and Thomas now smiled at him like a brother in drunkenness.
“It's all been top notch”, said Zoideva, appearing again a few minutes later. “I'm happy. Everyone has offered me congratulations. They all asked where I learnt to dance so well. Now…”
“And has Catarina said anything to you?”
He looked at Gervásio triumphantly, a haughty smile playing on his lips:
“She said that she'd like to dance with me. I let her know she was wasting her time. I'm no liar. Hold on. I'll just get another drink.”
He came straight back.
“She's mistaken if she thinks I want to patch things up. It's the way I am: I say what I feel. And I never go back on my word. If I were short of women it would be a different matter. But, as luck would have it, I have women falling all over me. They're the least of my problems. Just look at what's on offer here. It's just a question of choosing ….eh? Do you agree or not?”
When the dance finally ended, at five, Gervásio walked round looking for Zoideva, who was nowhere to be seen. He really had to be found, as Gervásio didn't know the way back alone. Recalling some mention of a relative in Zoranim, he set out in that direction with a couple of the day labourers.
The sky was beginning to grow light. The cold bore down in heavy grey gusts which, haring along, swept away the last remnants of the torrid, stuffy night. In the air floated a mix of motor fumes, the scent of morning leaves, and the sad silence that follows the end of a party.
Poor Zoideva! They found him where he had fallen, in a rocky hollow next to the path to Zoranim, the red of his capodd standing out against the green of the trees and the half-light of dawn. The mask, oh! the mask continued to smile grotesquely at Gervásio. From the mouth and nose holes a thick, yellowish trickle of vomit dripped slowly down Zoideva's blue blouse, in between his false breasts, which had all the buxom pertness of virginity. He was dead.
They gave him a simple cremation, after the administrator had run through his formalities, doing little more than holding his nose and pinching the stiff cold legs of the body. He hadn't dared to remove the mask, which had taken on a sinister appearance. Through the eyeholes two dull, lifeless orbs gazed out at them with the hypnotic fixity of death.
The flames rose to the height of the treetops, causing them to sway, and the bitter smoke, which reeked of burnt flesh, invaded the labyrinth of bushes. The men had sat down to warm themselves, stretching out their hands towards the flames, indifferent to its grim crackle, and striking up conversations.
“He's gone. He died like an idiot, witlessly. His body must have just given out. Not that it's a surprise. He drank like an ox... We'll miss him. The poor wretch was a lot of fun. And a good workman, if a bit fond of chasing women. But who isn't? It's the taverns that'll really suffer, for the debts he ran up and the drinking he'll no longer do. That mask, now where could he have found one so funny that even when I saw him lying in the ravine I felt like laughing? Anyway, he's dead now, reduced to ashes. It doesn't seem real. But there are the ashes. How little there is! Who is going to scatter them in the river? He didn't have any relatives. Some farmer will sprinkle the ashes over his paddy field, I guess. It's funny to think of Zoideva transformed into a fistful of rice. Or maybe the rains will wash the ashes far away, into the gully Dadajan has dug, where the workmen go to relieve themselves in the mornings.”
* * *
Gervásio wanted not to recall these things, but to drive his over-stimulated imagination far away from the spectacle of the day before! However, the image of the scene he had witnessed stuck in his mind with excruciating persistence. He had spent the day drinking in order to forget the macabre cremation of the body, barely covered by branches of green wood that resisted the flames and were then extinguished by grisly juices from the roast flesh. The stench of the burning corpse, which had been anointed with ghee, lashed at his nostrils, and it seemed to him that the pure country air had the smoky odour of the ravine at Zoranim. He had drowned himself in feni to see if he could assuage his upset stomach and soothe his memory, which, in some odd inexplicable paradox, kept returning to the things preying upon his mind. He had not even felt able to gulp down a little food or slurp a cup of tea. The workmen had laughed to see him in such a sorry state, almost unable to stay upright on his shaky legs, and had ferried him, almost aloft, to his home, where he had fallen asleep. He awoke in the dead of night gripped by the sensation of falling into an infinite abyss, which he had tried to fill by emptying what was left in his bottle.
The next morning he prepared and drank a little coffee. The hot drink didn't make him feel any better, tipping him into somnolence and making him close his eyes, which were burning. It was then that Zoideva crept in, came over to the bed and touched him meekly on the feet. His touch felt like the searing contact of hot coals against cold skin.
“Gervásio” he said “I need fifty rupees. I don't have a paisa. Ratanlal still owes me a week, but I can't ask him for the money. You know why. You understand my situation. You're the only person who can understand. It couldn't have worked out any other way. Didn't I tell you I was as vindictive as a snake? It's my nature. You won't betray me though, Gervásio. I'm leaving tomorrow. Catarina is coming with me. The borders are closed, but I know where we can cross. I need fifty rupees to get by at first. I'm asking you to lend them to me. One day I'll pay you back.”
Gervásio reached into his pocket. As if caught in a dream, his eyes still closed, he handed over his wallet, before falling into a deep sleep.
And off Zoideva went, shutting the door behind him as he left, never to return.
To read this story in the original Portuguese, click here.