It was completely unexpected—the incident. Who could expect something with neither heads nor tails? I was at home; the village was calm. A stampede stopped at my door. I went to the window.
A group of horsemen. Or rather: a steadfast horseman in full attire at my door, a rigorous man, and a band of three rowdy types sitting in their saddles. At a glance, everything was downright unsettling. I got nervous. That horseman—a man's man—a friendless face. I know the science of judging a man's character by his appearance. That man had journeyed to die in battle. He greeted me forcefully, dry, curt. His horse was tall and reddish-brown, bridled and shod, and sweating. And I sensed great doubt on his part.
No one dismounted. The others, a cheerless trio, had hardly noticed any-thing, including me. They looked like frightened people, a confused gang, repressed or embarrassed, perhaps coerced. The shrewd horseman had an air of commanding them in his this-for-that way, with half-gesture, scorn, and motioned to them to remain where they were. Since the front of my house was far away from the street, and on both sides was a fence, there formed a corner, a type of hideaway. He forced them to a place where they would be less visible, prohibiting them from leaving; not to mention that the horsemen were packed together, lacking mobility. He saw everything, taking advantage of the landscape. The three seemed to be his prisoners, not his henchmen. The man could only be one mean hombre, a hardcore hired gun. I felt it was of no use to show fear. I didn't have a gun at my reach. And even if I had one, it wouldn't have mattered. In the blink of an eye he would have put me down. Fear is extreme ignorance at an intense moment. The fear of the devil. The fear overwhelmed me. I invited him to dismount, to enter.
He said no, consistent with his customs. He kept his hat on. I saw that he had relaxed in the saddle to prepare for the difficult task of thinking. I asked him how I could help: he replied that he was not sick, nor had he come for a consultation or prescription. His voice was scanty, desiring calmness; his accent was distant, perhaps from São Francisco. I know his type of boldness that neither boasts nor brags. But on the contrary, very strange, perversely brusque, who could explode at the drop of a hat. Carefully, subtly, I began to collect my thoughts. He spoke: [End Page 171]
"I came to ask you, sir, for an opinion explained …"
He raised his eyebrow. His demeanor, his leathery skin, made me more anxious. He calmed himself, almost smiled. Then, he got off his horse, easily but unexpectedly—to show his best manners, or as an act of deceit? He kept the reins in his hand, and the horse was at peace. The hat remained on his head. He was a rustic, with impervious eyes. And he was battle-tested. He was a sight to behold: an armed man—and with polished guns. It was easy to sense the firepower in his belt where he was always ready to draw with his swaying right hand held at a perfect level. His saddle was a rare piece, made of a vulture tree, hard to find in the region, especially one made with such handicraft. All typical of tough hombres. His tenseness seemed to indicate that he was out for blood. He was small, but with hard features, thick like a tree trunk. He could blow away anyone at any moment. Had he entered the house and had coffee, it would have calmed me. Instead, the band outside, without the cordiality of a guest nor deafness of the wall, was enough to make one uneasy, without measurement or certainty.
"You, sir, do not know me. Damázio, dos Siqueiras … I come from Serra …" What a scare. Damázio, who had not heard of him? Stories of this fierce one who had sent many men to the grave came from miles away. Taking into account also that he had calmed down for some years, some had said—avoiding or avoided by him. For who could trust such truces with a panther? There he was, in my face, at hand's distance! He continued:
"Know this, sir, that just in the now, a young man appeared from the government, somewhat mouthy … Know that I am running out of patience with him … Here I do not want any problems with the government, I have neither the health nor the age … The boy, many think that he is a loose cannon …"
Suddenly, with a twitch, he became silent, as if to repent for such a beginning. That was evident. He was apparently tied up; he thought and he thought. Partially pensive. Then it was resolved. He raised his head. Maybe he laughed with his rotting teeth. Face me, he did not face me, just gave an obscure glance. An indecisive pride perked up in him. He began his monologue once again.
Apprehensively he spoke: of various persons and things, from Serra, from São Ão, subjects full of contradiction, nonsensical, all with difficulty. It was like unraveling a spiderweb. I tried to understand his slightest intonations, follow his intentions and silences. Keeping his cards close to his vest, slyly, deceiving me, he remained enigmatic. And then:
"You, sir, now do me the good deed of wanting to teach me what is: infasmous … infaz-me-ous … infamilious … infamiliously … …?"
He said, in one shot, that word that was lodged in his teeth. He pronounced it with a dry laugh. But the gesture that followed dominated the primitive rudeness, from his lingering presence. I delayed in answering; he didn't want me to give it at once. Right then and there something troubling occurred to me: someone could have designed a plot, some conspiracy to attribute to me [End Page 172] that offensive word; and that having the satisfaction of scaring me, he had come here to make an example of me, face-to-face, demanding an answer?
"You should know, sir, that I left today from Serra, and that I came many miles in a direct route, without stopping, dying to ask this question for a clear …"
If serious, he was. He puzzled me.
"There, and around these parts, there ain't nobody who knows, nor has the legitimate book—the one that learns the words … Only people with crooked information, and those who hide their ignorance … There is only the Padre, from somewhere, capable of knowing, but I don't get along well with Padres: they soon trick you … Oh well. Now, would you do me the favor, tell me, sir, straight to the point: that which, that which, I just asked you?"
If simple. If I say. I lost it. These utterances:
"Yes, sir …" And, loudly, he repeated the word several times, until red in the face, his voice out of tune. And now he looked at me, challenging, intimidating—then he squeezed me. I had to find the right expression. Infamous? I pondered an explanation. Right then I felt I needed a break. I looked for help from the other three horsemen, still mounted, still aware, mumbling amongst themselves.
"You, sir, declare. These here are harmless. They are from Serra. They only came as witnesses …"
I just needed to untangle myself. The man wanted a straight answer: the true meaning of the word.
"Infamous is innocuous, it is 'celebrity,' 'notorious,' 'notable' …"
"Sir, do not look down on my lack of understanding. But tell me: is it out of bounds? Is it ridicule? Is it a joke? A farce? Name of offense?"
"Nothing of this, no insult. They are neutral expressions, for other uses …"
"Well … what is it, what is it, in poor man's speech, the language of day-to-day?"
"Infamous? Well, it is: 'Important.' That which deserves praise, respect …" "You, sir, a-guarantee, with your hand on the Scriptures, for the peace of our mothers?"
Of course! It was time to bet it all. What the hell, so I sincerely said:
"Look. I, as you, sir, see me as a man of advantages, um, what I most want at this hour is to be infamous—very infamous, the most infamous I could be!" "Ah, good!" He let out with great joy.
Jumping in his saddle, he composed himself. He smiled, cooled down, and was no longer so fired up. He smiled once again. He appeased the other three: "Compadres, you all can go. You heard well the good description …" And the three readily departed. Only then did he approach me at the window and accept a glass of water. He said: "There is nothing more manly than an educated person!" How could it be that he could get so upset over such a small [End Page 173] thing? He said: "Who knows? Sometimes the best thing for that government boy is to go away. But I don't know …" Then he smiled again; this calmed my anxiety. He said: "We can get so upset over such silly doubts, become so uneasy, over spilt milk …" He thanked me and wanted to shake my hand. Once again, I offered my house to him. Oh well. He spurred his horse and went away, not thinking about what he had just brought here—a topic of great laughter and an infamous subject. [End Page 174]
João Guimarães Rosa (1908–1967) is regarded as one of Brazil's greatest writers. Born in Cordisburgo, Minas Gerais, he worked as a doctor and, in 1938, as a diplomat for the Brazilian government in Hamburg, Germany. In 1942, he was arrested for forging passports for Jews fleeing the Nazis, and was later freed in exchange for the release of German diplomats. He was honored for this humanitarian work by the state of Israel. He wrote poetry and fiction, and his highly innovative 1956 novel, Grande Sertão: Veredas, is considered a masterpiece of Brazilian and world literature.