E ainda era no tempo do rei
by Vinicius Jatobá
translated from Portuguese by Jethro Soutar
illustrated by Martijn in ’t Veld
You have to expect the odd disagreement when the erudite reflections of starch-collared academics come up against the toothless convictions of the honest-to-goodness rabble. For while books with leather-clad spines declare the usual suspects as the carnival greats, the likes of Paulo da Portela and Alcides Lopes, Heitor dos Prazeres and Antônio Rufino, Dona Ivone Lara, Maninho Décio and Beto Sem Braço, the rabble raises an eyebrow and scratches its chin in the corner, any corner where food and drink is to be had. The rabble loves those names too, loves them from the bottom of its heart, but can’t help feeling that, despite the ornate calligraphy and the flowery prose, despite the Latin study and the burning of the midnight oil, the list somehow falls short. And so the rabble, the maelstrom of sweat and emotion that is the immortal rabble, sets about devising its own list of Madureira and Oswaldo Cruz carnival luminaries. Gathered at the bandstand or playing spoof outside the liquor store, performing the stations of the cross in the church courtyard or upholding Rio’s parliamentary tradition of putting the world to rights in bars, the great unwashed make the case for favourites until voices are hoarse.
They hail the magnificent Magé Fabuloso, leader of impromptu dances and serenades at the Vicente de Carvalho bandstand, who never found his way into any book because he simply wouldn’t fit, who was such a rascal that when he hissed even the most devout of the old ladies in the Cristo Rei church missed a stitch in their holy crochet lines. And they respectfully recall, with a wry pucker of the lips and a momentary shut of the eyes, unseasonable storms stirred up by the hip-shaking frenzy that was Amanda, samba dancer extraordinaire and eternal muse of Boêmios de Irajá, who caused uproar whenever she offered the admiring mob the back of her dark and musky hand, whose milky smile lit up magical nights of streamers and confetti, a specimen of such beauty that her sprightly navel almost did for half the marriages in Vaz Lobo. And the rabble summon Pedro Alves to the podium, the pelvic gymnast, a man who could get the crowd going on a quiet day simply by tapping his fork against a latrine, who could cough three words into a paper napkin and have them turn into verse under a full moon, who samba-ed as he drank and ate, that’s to say heartily, and who had a good shot on him at football too, even sneezed tunefully, and who worked while he slept, on a pile of sacks at the back of the Velho Matias emporium.
Accordingly and consequently, as Doctor Learned might say, with his therefores, howevers and neverthelesses, or may God be my witness, as Mister Rabble might say, with a cross my heart and hope to die, the truth is a bit of this and a bit of that, neither here nor there, for one man’s meat is another man’s poison. But I say this not in idle boast, rather as fighting talk lacking in all etiquette, and I’ll say it loud and I’ll say it proud and I’ll say it under oath, for I do solemnly swear that the true king of carnival, and you can sharpen your knives and lash out in protest all you like, but the undisputed king of Madureira and Oswaldo Cruz carnival, and I dare say the whole of Rio de Janeiro, was my great uncle Everaldo. That’s right, the oldest pharmacist on Rua Portela, a God-fearing man and a strict upholder of the rules of moral convention, who prayed before lunch and prayed before dinner, and prayed before crossing the road and prayed before getting his haircut, who even asked for the Lord’s blessing before sneezing, according to my great-aunt Clarice.
If a girl walked past with part of her knee showing, he registered the fact from behind his shop counter and worked out who her mother and aunt and grandmother were, in order to denounce the unvirtuous damsel, and if a matter being discussed by a group of honourable men suddenly ground to a silent halt because a beautiful dark girl paraded by, my great-uncle Everaldo noted down the names and surnames of the citizens present in his little notebook, and joyfully and whimsically plotted to reveal them at the next big mass. Anyone skiving off school avoided the dreaded Rua Portela, and anyone out for a hair-of-the-dog during work hours avoided the sinister Rua Portela, and any member of the congregation who missed mass to go window shopping avoided the pavement in front of my great-uncle Everaldo’s pharmacy, because it could prove fatal. With his thick, black-framed glasses balanced over his bushy moustache and his beak-like nose, Evaristo was a hawk who saw everything. And he really did see everything.
But then it would happen. A fatal illness to a mystery cousin in Espirito Santo, mourned by Everaldo, weeping, shaking his head, inconsolable; a long-lost aunt in Minas who needed his help, the poor thing, abandoned by her swine for a husband, will the cruelty of the world never end; a new miracle of modern medicine that required his urgent, unmissable presence in São Paulo because, as he told my father, who listened with frowned forehead, he who minds the health of the neighbourhood must always be on guard, Seu Fabiano, for illness makes its home in an unvigilated lodge. And it would happen: my great-uncle Everaldo would vanish. And then without warning, a few days later, he’d return, open the door to the house, be all tears in the kitchen and in the lounge, my great-aunt making the sign of the cross, but smiling, stroking his head, saying poor devil, poor devil, and Everaldo, crushed, defeated, bags under his eyes, grimacing and sighing, would lay one exhausted hand on the Bible and pick up a spoon with the other, to eat doce-de-leite from the jar. All day long. At his leisure.
The scheming would begin in December: he’d send letters to the house addressed to himself, letters with alarming news, all sadness and illness, and my father would ask Everaldo if he knew who was going to die next year yet, so he could buy a suit appropriate to the importance of the deceased. In January, Everaldo would walk about the house waving green French pharmacy pamphlets, show us illustrations of some new invention and make salivating sounds of admiration as he read out their exotic names, and my father would say the plane for France leaves from over there, Seu Everaldo, go and buy yourself a ticket for next month, I’ll help you pack your bag, that’s what a good friend I am. In February, my great-uncle Everaldo would begin to sweat nervously, and if it was very windy he’d cross himself, and if it wasn’t windy he’d do the same thing anyway. Grace before meals got ever longer, fevered stories of apostles and divine punishment, and my father would lay his head in his hands and say I’m going to take a little nap over here, for as everyone knows God grants sleep to the workers, so when you’re done, Seu Everaldo, if you’d be kind enough to wake me up, I’d be much obliged. The family held back the laughter while Everaldo became even more stern, composed himself and carried on with his discourse.
When my great-aunt hung the big Italian kitchen apron on the clothesline in the yard, the farewells began. Everaldo hurriedly explained endless details, my father giving plentiful the poor fellow or the poor little dear, or saying off you go and study Seu Everaldo, the world is going to the dogs and there you are busy sacrificing yourself, reading all those long and difficult words, I have great admiration for you, Sir, I really do. And my great-uncle adjusted his heavy black glasses and placed his pristine hat on his head, took his leather suitcase in one hand, kissed my great-aunt softly on the forehead and walked across the yard with the hesitant footsteps of a cripple, stopping one last time when he got to the gate to turn towards the house, peer up at the tile of Saint George above the door and make the sign of the cross. Once he’d gone, my father would look at Dona Clarice and say, he’s such a ham he should be in the West End, doing turns with Zaquia Jorge, full house every night, we’d be rich, sleeping on American feathered mattresses, know what I mean, Dona Clarice? And my great-aunt would burst out laughing and go pink.
I was the only one who didn’t know. Then one day I knew.
Years and years had flown by and I was a young lad, and it was February and we ran and leaped about and we were Egyptians, our faces burned by the Saharan sun, with streamers and confetti and a jolly old hour lost on the trolley, and please Mr Conductor, don’t make us pay, and off we went together, roaring into the streets, follow the van said my old man, over to the boy king at the heart of the block, and there was pushing and shoving and hugging, doing the bamboola and the blue hula and no, we do have bananas, and the gardener girl swinging her little shoulders and I promised her the world, tied up with ribbons, and I said I’d open it for her with my silver beak, but she was too pretty and proud and the woman of my dreams disappeared out of sight, but on the very next corner I discovered that the woman of my dreams was another, it was scandalous and disorientating, the brass band played and there were lots of girls I’d like to be beside, and there was sweat and verses, lemon perfume and poppers, and the goddess Aurora smiled at me amidst the mob and I whispered in her ear we’ll get married in the afternoon and go to Miami for our honeymoon, but she wouldn’t believe me, and I can see that you’re the one for me, but she didn’t believe me, and I promised the moon to a columbine and the sun to a harlequin and I kissed the hands of a pierrot. Because it was carnival, because I was happy, and because I was alive.
And it was then that I heard the shout, here comes Trompa de Ceilão, bursts of laughter from the rabble, pushing and pulling, and right in the middle of Avenida Rio Branco, with a wooden spoon tucked under his armpit, a giant cigar at his lips and a pink pig on a leash running in between his legs, was my great-uncle Everaldo, dressed in the Italian apron, lifting the apron up to reveal and wave about his modesty. He hopped around with his bum out, the pig grunted a festive verse and someone dressed as Padre Cícero shouted that if president Gaspar Dutra died we’d have another carnival later in the year, and there was hand clapping and the throwing of giant confetti, and wherever Everaldo went, I followed. I saw him shimmying enthusiastically with a couple of highwaywomen, and I saw him giving cachaça to a frightened donkey, and I saw him exchange punches with some hillbillies from Cacique, snare drums flying everywhere, and I even saw him lift his apron up in front of the Catete presidential palace, his arms draped round a pair of lucifers, shouting that he sure loved to gorge on pancake day. I saw him tell a pharaoh’s emissary to go to hell when the man offered the pig a gold wedding ring, and I saw him jostle into the mad crowd, saying away with you Zé Pereira party poopers, this is no old school carnival riot, and when the police arrived and brought their truncheons into the ruckus in the Mem de Sá, I saw Everaldo take off with two kings, an Indian, four Bandeirantes and a Getúlio hand in hand with a Lacerda, running in the direction of Praça Tiradentes with the pig balanced on top of his head. And he was gone.
Wednesday came. I sat in Largo de Vaz Lobo with a slice of bread and butter in my hand. I thought about what stood between me and next February, next carnival: attending Republicano school, studying grammar and maths, smoking and drinking in secret, going to the cinema to ogle the divas, helping my father in the butcher’s shop. As I walked home, I passed masks of kings and queens, Indian headdresses, clubs and fans and capes, abandoned in the gutter, collecting and rustling in the morning breeze. Only those who truly take part feel the Ashes of Wednesday, the heart a wreck from so many unconsummated love affairs. The Wednesday after carnival is an abyss, a precipice. On Rua Ouro Fino, I passed the pig: it was wearing a tattered ballerina’s tutu and was busily rooting around in the neighbour’s rubbish. I went into the house. Everyone was asleep. I grabbed a spoon and went into the dining room and sat down next to my great-uncle Everaldo. He had bags under his eyes. I started to eat the doce de leite, sighing. I asked Everaldo about the funeral and he said it was lovely, the priest had said some nice things about heaven and earth and poor souls, and that this one was going to heaven. He made the sign of the cross. I excused myself, went to my room, lay down on my bed. And through the half-open door I heard Everaldo whisper it’s a long way to Irajá, to the sweetest mulatta I know. My great-uncle Everaldo, his majesty, the Carioca king of Carnival, wallowing in treasured memories of the last few days, happy with life and his doce de leite.
Jethro Soutar is a translator of Spanish and Portuguese. He has translated works from Argentina, Brazil, Portugal and Guinea Bissau, and two novels by Equatorial Guinea’s Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel. He is a co-founder of Ragpicker Press. He is also the Editor of Dedalus Africa.
Martijn in ’t Veld, (Strijen, the Netherlands, 1979) is a visual-artist, writer, illustrator, graphic designer, photographer, animator, poet, publisher, film-maker, sculptor and philanthropist living in Sevilla. He is married and has two kids.